Though humans have marveled and studied the ocean for thousands of years, much of it remains a mystery to us. One of those mysteries is ocean eddies, small ocean currents that impact the planet’s climate and therefore all life on earth.
What we do know is that ocean eddies are responsible for driving around 50 percent of all phytoplankton production, which, along with other marine plants such as kelp and algal plankton, make up the base of the marine food chain and produce around 70 percent of atmospheric oxygen. Other than that, scientists have struggled to understand them because they are so small (some are only 10 meters across) and short-lived, with an average lifespan of 12 hours—hardly enough time for ocean observations.
“Every fourth breath each human takes depends on those small ocean eddies,” says Burkard Baschek, the director of the German Oceanographic Museum in the northern port of Stralsund. When he was the head of Germany’s Institute of Coastal Ocean Dynamics at the Helmholtz Centre Hereon in Geesthact, Bascheck watched more than $20,000 of his equipment get swallowed up by the ocean while trying to study these elusive eddies.
Instead of giving up in frustration, Baschek began to collaborate with others to think of a more creative way to collect data on ocean eddies. Rudolf Bannasch’s team at EvoLogics, a Berlin-based company specializing in bionics based on natural evolution, suggested that Bascheck looked to penguins for inspiration.
“Penguins provide a shape with optimal streamlining characteristics,” Bannasch explains. He found that penguins are 20 to 30 percent more streamlined than anything designed in a laboratory, making them ideal for the high-speed measurements Baschek needed.
In April, the first penguin-like prototype, the Quadroin, embarked on its first voyage in a lake near Berlin. The Quadroin, an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is a 3D-printed self-propelled machine and is named after the four propellers that help it move and the word “penguin,” of course. It has a maximum speed of eight knots (or 9.2 mph) and can maneuver around obstructions in the water freely to a depth of 150 meters.
Eddies need to be measured in multiple locations at the same time, so Bannasch and his colleagues are working on creating more artificial penguins that can join the Quadroin, creating a “swarm,” singing in unison to communicate with each other, as dolphins do.
The robo-penguins will be equipped with GPS and other miniature sensors so that they can relay data to each other and to a research ship instantaneously. The scientists hope to incorporate artificial intelligence to allow smart group behavior and decision-making, so the Quadroins can interpret the measurements and decide what the best next steps are.
While the Quadroins’ intended purpose is to measure quickly evolving oceanic processes, the robo-penguins can also be used to survey environments that other vehicles can’t reach, like under sea ice or in shallow water. The team behind these nature-inspired devices hopes that they can make remote marine studies more accessible to everyone—universities, research institutes, and oceanographic firms that don’t have much funding.
The best part? Baschek will never have to see the Quadroins sink to the bottom of the ocean like the rest of his equipment—if the electronics fail, then these robo-penguins can imitate their real-life counterparts and float to the surface.