UW team sending autonomous surfboard to explore Antarctic waters

researchers on ship lowering large surfboard into water

The Wave Glider is being lowered into the water in the Beaufort Sea in September 2018. The black solar panels provide electrical power, the white bulb provides satellite communication and the orange paddles drop down to give a forward push in wavy seas.San Nguyen

This week, a surfboard arrived in Antarctica. Not only was it missing a surfer, but the unique board was covered in parts that let it move independently and measure the surrounding seawater.

The University of Washington project will first use the Wave Glider to investigate the summer conditions near Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula, to better understand how the warming ocean interacts with ice shelves that protrude from the shore.

Then in February, the cybernetic surfboard plans to head north into Drake Passage, braving some of the stormiest seas on the planet that even large research ships try to avoid. The device uses wave power to propel itself, so the monster waves common in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current can help it move forward.

“We hope to learn more about the connections between the ocean, atmosphere and sea ice in this dynamic environment,” said principal investigator Jim Thomson, an oceanographer at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

As it surfs along, the board will measure turbulence in the upper part of the Southern Ocean, which helps to measure how heat and other properties move between the water and the air. The board sends information back via satellite, and researchers will retrieve it once the mission is complete.

The UW team’s previous project in late 2016 sent the same autonomous platform across the 500-mile channel between Antarctica and Argentina, with resulting papers in Oceanography magazine and the Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology. This time the board has more capabilities, including a winch that can lower an instrument to measure water temperature, salinity and pressure – key oceanographic observations – down to a depth of 150 meters (about 160 yards).

map of West Antarctica and tip of South America

The robot surfboard will explore near Palmer Station, a U.S. research station on the Antarctic Peninsula. It will also measure conditions in Drake Passage, the stormy channel between Antarctica and South America.University of Washington

The revamped system also uses sonar to measure turbulence in the ocean and in the atmosphere, as well as a motion sensor to measure the waves. These measurements quantify the strength of the mixing occurring in the notoriously stormy region.

The board is a modified version of a Wave Glider made by Liquid Robotics, a California-based subsidiary of Boeing Co.

“The ability to collect vertical profile data with the new winch is a game changer. It makes the platform complete as an autonomous research tool,” said James Girton, an oceanographer at the Applied Physics Laboratory and affiliate assistant professor of oceanography.

Girton and Ryan Newell, an oceanographer at the Applied Physics Laboratory, are putting the instrument out in the water this week from the icebreaker research vessel Laurence M. Gould. An outreach team is providing live interaction from the ship through Nov. 2.

The coastal monitoring is part of the Long-Term Ecological Research Network at Palmer Station, a U.S. research station on an island off the Antarctic Peninsula. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

/Public Release. View in full here.