Navy Funds A Small Robot Army To Study The Arctic | KERA News

Navy Funds A Small Robot Army To Study The Arctic

Feb 15, 2015
Originally published on February 15, 2015 11:49 am

Earlier this month the U.S. Navy's research office rented out a conference center in Washington, D.C., to show off some of its hottest new technology.

On display was an electromagnetic gun, and drones that could swarm around an enemy ship. But it wasn't all James Bond-style gadgets.

In a little side room was a yellow machine, shaped like a torpedo with stubby wings sticking out of its side. "Looks like a banana — straightened out banana — to me, but that's maybe just the way my mind works," says Martin Jeffries, an Arctic researcher with the Office for Naval Research, which paid for the development of the strange device.

It's actually a seaglider — a robot that can surf the ocean currents for up to a year at a time. Last summer, the Navy sponsored a massive study that used several of them, together with buoys and other probes, to watch a patch of Arctic ice as it broke up.

"It was the largest experiment of its kind," Jefferies says. "Nothing like it had ever been done before in the Arctic Ocean."

This kind of big, scientific study is something new for the Navy. For decades it's run its submarines under the ice, but didn't really care what was happening on the surface.

"The Arctic essentially has been a closed ocean [to surface ships] because of the ice cover, which did not retreat so much in the summer," says Jefferies.

But climate change is causing the Arctic Ocean to thaw. In the summer of 2007 a lot of the ice covering the ocean melted; and in the summer of 2012, even more ice disappeared.

The Navy is paying researchers to develop gliders and other gizmos, and stick them in and near the ice, because it needs to figure out how quickly the thaw is coming.

At the moment it looks like it's happening faster than expected, according to Craig Lee, a University of Washington researcher who led the Arctic study the Navy sponsored. Lee says scientists are still going through the data from last summer's study, but early indications are that warming Arctic waters are absorbing more sunlight and melting more ice than in past summers. "There's a positive feedback that happens," Lee says.

As the Arctic opens, ships will begin travelling across the region during the summer months. The Navy will be called upon to protect U.S. territorial waters and help commercial vessels that run into trouble. Right now, it doesn't have the experience it needs.

"The only time we currently operate U.S. Navy warships in the arctic is along the coast of Norway up to Russia," says Commander Blake McBride, who helped write the Navy's 2014 Arctic strategy. Those trips along the Norwegian coast are rare, and most Navy ships haven't operated in the frigid Arctic environment.

"Even if it's ice-free, there will be times and places where the temperature is extremely low, and things break in ways you wouldn't necessarily expect," McBride says.

So the Navy needs to test its gear. It's also looking at new stuff — like ice-phobic coatings for its boats, so they don't get bogged down by freezing water and sea-spray.

Based on what it's learning from studies like this one, the Navy says it wants to be ready to operate in the Arctic by around the year 2030.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, HOST:

The U.S. Navy's research office has some new technology that could make James Bond's famous gadget-maker jealous - an electromagnetic gun, drones that can swarm an enemy ship?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: U.S. Navy autonomous swarm boats - the future is now.

LAKSHMANAN: It's not all futuristic warfare, though. Poking around a conference where the devices were on display, NPR's Geoff Brumfiel found some odd-looking technology with a very different purpose.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: In the little side room away from the main expo hall, I found a bright yellow torpedo-y thing with wings.

MARTIN JEFFRIES: Looks like a banana - straightened-out banana to me, but that's maybe just the way my mind works.

BRUMFIEL: Martin Jeffries is looking at it with me. It's actually a robot that glides beneath the waves surfing on ocean currents. Jeffries is at the Office of Naval Research which is paid to develop this seaglider, as it's called. Last year, the Navy sponsored a massive study that used several seagliders together with buoys and other probes to look at a big patch of Arctic ice. The sensors tracked the ice over the summer as it broke apart and melted.

JEFFRIES: It was the largest experiment of its kind, namely an experiment that relied to a great extent on robotic technologies and autonomous observing. Nothing like it had ever been done in the Arctic Ocean.

BRUMFIEL: This kind of big scientific study is something new for the Navy. For decades, it's run its submarines underneath the Arctic ice. But it didn't really care what was happening on the surface.

JEFFRIES: The Arctic essentially has been a closed ocean because of the ice cover which did not retreat so much in the summer.

BRUMFIEL: But climate change is causing the Arctic Ocean to thaw. In the summer of 2007, a lot of ice covering the ocean melted. And in 2012, even more ice disappeared.

JEFFRIES: Now we've got all this open water. And it's easier to get into and out of and to cross the Arctic basin. And the projections are it will become even easier.

BRUMFIEL: And that means the Navy has to be there. New shipping routes are opening. The Navy must protect U.S. territorial waters and help out commercial vessels if they run into trouble. It's paying researchers to develop gliders and other gizmos because it needs to figure out how quickly the thaw is coming because right now the Navy isn't ready.

COMMANDER BLAKE MCBRIDE: The only time we currently operate U.S. Navy warships in the Arctic is along the coast of Norway up to Russia.

BRUMFIEL: That's Commander Blake McBride who helped write the Navy's new Arctic strategy. Those trips along the Norwegian coast are rare. Most ships haven't operated in the frigid Arctic environment.

MCBRIDE: Even if it's ice-free, there will be times and places where the temperatures are extremely low. And things break in ways that you wouldn't necessarily expect.

BRUMFIEL: So the Navy needs to test its gear. It's also looking at new stuff like ice-phobic coatings for its boats so they don't get bogged down by freezing water and sea spray. Right now the Navy thinks it will have to be ready to operate in the Arctic starting in 2030. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.