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December 11, 2012

Liquid Robotics' Robot Glider Papa Mau Observes Fabled Rogue Waves

Rogue waves that come out of nowhere on beautiful sunny days in the middle of the ocean were thought to be tall tales told by sailors, but the truth is they are much too real.

The waves appear suddenly, overwhelming ships of all sizes, boasting waves of more than 120 feet in some cases. In fact, the cruise ship Louis Majesty was hit by such a wave in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain in 2010, injuring six and killing two passengers. Detecting these waves can save many lives and hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

The information gathered by the Papa Mau will provide oceanographers with critical information that could possibly help with the creation of early warning systems for rogue waves.

The Papa Mau traveled 16,668 kilometers (10,357 miles) on a scientific expedition across the Pacific Ocean. The journey began in November 17, 2011 and it was part of a fleet of four robot Wave Glider submarines. The autonomous subs are made by Liquid Robotics based in Sunnyvale California.

The subs are powered by the ocean’s waves and it doesn’t require any other type of fuel. As long as there is motion in the ocean, the sub will move forward using a multi-patented design. Besides moving forward on its own, the vessel collects and transmits data throughout its voyage, which can last up to a year or more. Gliding in the ocean gives it the ability to report weather anomalies close to the water with more accuracy than satellites – such as rogue waves.

“There was not a cloud in the sky, nothing was on the satellites,” says Bill Vass, CEO of Liquid Robotics “And we said, ‘Oh, there must be something wrong with [the submarine’s] sensors.’ But when all four robots saw [the waves], we turned on the cameras. It was pretty astounding.”

Nearby, an unfortunate sailboat lost its mast and was rescued by a Dutch freighter. “Besides that sailboat, the freighter, and us, no one would have seen those waves,”

While satellites are able to provide information on large weather systems with great accuracy other phenomenon escape their detection. “The speed and directions of currents have major effects on the shipping industry, oil and gas and marine operations, as well as global weather. The robot gliders’ ability to show measurements will change the way many of these industries work in the future,” Vass adds.

The cost benefit of the gliders is also considerably cheaper when compared to ship research vessels. While a vessel with a crew can cost an average of $37,500 per day with a total of more than $13 million per year, the glider can perform the task for only $3,000 per day or a little over one million dollars.

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Edited by Allison Boccamazzo

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