Rhode Island Oceanographer Builds Robotic Research Boat

SCOAP, photo/University of Rhode Island

An oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography has begun testing a 36-foot custom-built robotic catamaran he helped design for collecting data about currents and circulation patterns in coastal waters. Built by SeaRobotics Corp. in Florida, it is the first vessel of its kind intended to operate independently in open coastal waters for up to a month at a time.

Dan Codiga, a URI marine research scientist, is conducting a series of field trials to demonstrate the boat’s high-tech capabilities this summer before deploying it on its first data collection mission later this year.

“A main limitation oceanographers face is the high cost of research vessel operations,” said Codiga. “Answers to key scientific questions are out of reach because it’s too expensive to keep a research vessel out for weeks at a time to see how the ocean’s spatial structure changes. This new boat aims to finally make that affordable.”

Codiga studies the circulation patterns and water properties in southern New England, including how they are affected by climate change.

“Variations that occur in the coastal ocean are controlled to a large extent by runoff events and the weather, so they tend to last for days at a time,” Codiga said. “To understand them, you have to be out collecting data for several cycles, which means for a few weeks.

“Because coastal areas and estuaries are also tidally dominated, you need measurements several times a day for several weeks to end up with a data set that allows you to separate tidal and non-tidal variability. It’s a subtle point, but it’s absolutely crucial to isolate and understand the processes that control non-tidal variations, which determine the long-term temperature and salinity and the fate of where materials are transported by currents,” he added.

The new robotic boat has an efficient hybrid diesel-electric propulsion system and an onboard navigation system that can follow a pre-programmed course. Its large size helps maintain stability in sea states typical of Rhode Island Sound and Block Island Sound. It will be operated under close coordination with the Coast Guard, moving back and forth along a pre-designated transect like a moving buoy. It is being modified with software smart enough to change course to safely avoid other vessels it encounters.

The boat is equipped to measure currents but it can also host a wide variety of sensors used to study biological, chemical, sedimentary, and meteorological processes.

“Some of the most important questions about how coastal ecosystems work involve trying to understand the transport of material,” Codiga said. “For instance, how fast is salty water transported from outside of Narragansett Bay to within the Bay? What are the pathways by which harmful algal blooms are moved from the Gulf of Maine to the Southern New England continental shelf? Any time you get into the question of materials transport, you have to measure both currents and whatever the material is and capture spatial patterns repeatedly in time. That’s what has motivated design of this new platform.”

The URI researcher tested the new vessel for the first time in Allen Harbor in North Kingstown last week. He expects to continue testing its various capabilities in July and August.

The vessel was acquired with funding from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Technology and Interdisciplinary Coordination. For more information, CLICK HERE.


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