Artificial Intelligence

This fleet of underwater robots is studying ocean microbes

An autonomous underwater vehicle used for surveying the sea floor is displayed at the ECA Robotics booth at the IMDEX Asia maritime defence exhibition in Singapore May 19, 2015. The 10th international maritime defence show which sees participation from 180 exhibitors and delegations from over 40 countries takes place from May 19 to 21. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Autonomous vehicles are being used to collect data on microbes that live in the ocean. Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Claudia Geib
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Artificial Intelligence?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Artificial Intelligence is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Artificial Intelligence

Here’s a riddle for you: What’s nearly invisible, ubiquitous throughout the world, and produces at least fifty percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere while removing much of its carbon dioxide?

The answer, you may not have guessed, is ocean microbes. We increasingly realize how much the world is run by the smallest of organisms. Yet we still don’t know enough about these microbes, nor how they influence large-scale events, like climate change.

Now, a group of scientists is looking to autonomous robots for help.

On March 10, oceanographers and engineers from the University of Hawaii Mānoa and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) deployed three long-range autonomous underwater vehicles (LRAUVs) in the waters off Hawaii.

This was a test run, at least at first. Eventually, though, these vehicles will be able to autonomously travel and gather data for more than 966 km (600 mi) before scientists will need to recover them.

Each LRAUV is designed with sensors to collect data like water temperature, chemistry, and chlorophyll content as it moves through the ocean, targeting large oceanographic features like eddies (swirling masses of water) and blooms of phytoplankton.

What’s more, these robots can capture and archive samples of seawater in an Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) as they travel. The organisms in those samples will give researchers an idea of which kinds of microbes exist in different places in the ocean, and provide insight into the structure of the eddies in which some live, or which kinds of microbes live through algal blooms.

The ocean has long remained an under-studied area of the planet. But vehicles like these are changing that — robots are mapping the seafloor, while floating sensorscontinuously gather information about the conditions in the ocean in general.

Have you read?

“When we first talked about putting an ESP in an AUV, I thought to myself ‘this is never going to happen,'” said Jim Birch, MBARI’s lead engineer on the ESP project, in a press release. When MBARI researchers started developing ESPs about 15 years ago, they were about the size of an oil drum. The latest versions are one-tenth the original size, at 20 cm (8 in) to 25.4 cm (10 in) in diameter.

“Now I really think this is going to transform oceanography by giving us a persistent presence in the ocean — a presence that doesn’t require a boat, can operate in any weather condition, and can stay within the same water mass as it drifts around the open ocean,” Birch added.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Artificial IntelligenceOceanFuture of the Environment
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

AI and cyber, cancer-care, trade tech, and green skills: Top weekend reads on Agenda

Gayle Markovitz

March 1, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum