Gliding Across the Atlantic

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An unmanned submersible operated by Rutgers University's Coastal Ocean Observation Laboratory (COOL) is "flying" -- underwater -- from New Jersey to Spain. The remote-controlled undersea glider will travel more than 3,800 miles, and will collect key scientific information on the temperature and salinity of the Atlantic Ocean.

"The big advantage is, it's totally unmanned," according to Conrad Lautenbacher, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which sponsors the submersible. "It's very efficient and can be used to obtain the same kind of data we gather from ships."

In general, sea gliders are Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) that use small changes in buoyancy in conjunction with wings to convert vertical motion to horizontal, and thereby propel themselves forward with very low power consumption. While not as fast as conventional AUVs with propulsion systems, gliders using buoyancy-based propulsion represent a significant increase in range and endurance compared to vehicles propelled by electric motor-driven propellers. The sea glider has a battery-powered data collection and satellite communication system. The U.S. Navy as well as NOAA have been developing such sea gliders for several years.

During its trans-Atlantic cruise the glider will periodically rise to the surface of the ocean to transmit data up to a satellite. But most of the time the COOL glider will travel at depths between 15 feet to 300 feet below the surface. The COOL researchers will share all collected oceanographic data with the Navy and other interested agencies. The lack of a propulsion system will aid in data collection, alleviating self-noise interference.

The Navy is also looking into glider-type AUVs -- which it calls UUVs for Unmanned Underwater Vehicles -- for several missions, primarily to undertake environmental measurements in areas where surface ships or aircraft (dropping sensors) cannot easily operate. And, of course, flotillas of such unmanned gliders would be much cheaper than manned research ships and craft.

The COOL-developed submersible is yellow, less than 8 feet long, and weighs about 130 pounds. Developed by Rutgers University, the craft will also provide the university with other important information, such as how long the crafts batteries will last and systems reliability. Larger and more capable AUV/UUVs are being developed by the Navy under the auspices of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Commands systems center in San Diego and the Office of Naval Research.

According to the 2000 Program Guide to the U.S. Navy, the highest priority missions for Navy UUVs, presumably including gliders, are intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; mine countermeasures (i.e., locating and mapping mines); and anti-submarine warfare. Sea gliders could be very useful in collecting environmental information for ASW operations.

-- Norman Polmar

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