PHOTOS: The Mind-Blowing, Floating, Unmanned Scientific Laboratory

Wave Gliders are about to make scientific exploration a lot cheaper and safer

Liquid Robotics
Liquid Robotics

Wave Glider

Wave Glider
(Liquid Robotics)

Recently, the Papa Mau set a world record sailing from San Francisco to Australia. It wasn’t the fastest voyage (the trip lasted a year), but it was the longest of its kind—over 10,000 miles of ocean without a human onboard.

Ocean Solar Panel

Wave Glider
(Liquid Robotics)

The Papa Mau is one of 200 autonomous research vessels called Wave Gliders, manufactured by Liquid Robotics. The 200-pound craft sports an unusual two-part design. The “float” is covered with solar panels and houses the onboard computer and navigation system. The “sub,” attached by a 20-foot cable, is fitted with a series of paddles that harness vertical wave motion to flap like bird wings. Powered by the sea and sun, the glider can collect scientific data uninterrupted for up to a year.

Ocean Energy Generator

Wave Glider
(Liquid Robotics)

The vessels cost $200,000 each. But in the fall, one researcher will get a free ride when Liquid Robotics announces the winner of its PacX Competition, in which scientists submitted proposals for a $50,000 grant to use a glider for six months. One finalist is Nicole Goebel of the University of California at Santa Cruz, who tracks growth patterns of phytoplankton—the microscopic organisms that serve as the base of the ocean food chain. The Wave Glider, she says, “is much more comprehensive in terms of covering space and gathering data over time than going out in a research vessel and taking a few samples.” Plus, it never gets seasick.