By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Robotic wave gliders gathering data in PWS

NOAA studying changing water parameters using unmanned vessels


Photo courtesy Wiley Evans/NOAA-PMEL

The wave glider plying the waters of central Prince William Sound with the research vessel Tiglax in the background.

If you spot an object in the waters of Prince William Sound that closely resembles a rider-less surfboard, leave it alone.

That's the word from engineers from NOAA - the National Aeronautic and Atmospheric Administration – who recently launched two unmanned robotic "wave gliders" to study ocean acidification in the Sound.

"Please don't recover it," said Noah Lawrence-Slavas, a Seattle-based mechanical engineer for NOAA at its Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. "They are going to be out there all summer."

A NOAA press release asks mariners " remain clear of the gliders, giving them at least 100-foot clearance if spotted. NOAA asks that no vessel should attempt to recover or otherwise interfere with the gliders."

The wave gliders are three feet wide and six feet long and marked with a bright orange flag that sticks up about three feet above the water for daylight hours and warning lights during dark periods. In addition to the scientific monitoring instruments, the gliders are also equipped with AIS – Automatic Identification System – that alerts larger vessels such as oil tankers to its location.

"Right now, it's just going around Naked Island basically," Lawrence-Slavas said Friday in a telephonic interview. "I'm driving the wave glider as we speak."

The second wave glider is doing similar work navigating back and forth across the entrance of Port Bainbridge and Montague Strait according to a NOAA press release.

The slow sailing gliders – Lawrence-Slavas said it sails at a speed of only one-knot – are powered by wave energy and are programed with specific coordinates.

"We give it a track-line to run," he said. If it veers off course, it will call home to ask the engineers to guide it back. "We can tell it things."

The gliders will also notify the engineers back home in Seattle if it detects another AIS-equipped vessel that is on a potential collision course with the glider. The AIS system also updates US Coast Guard computers at the Valdez VTS – which stands for vessel traffic service.

The gliders use satellite to update trackers, including the Coast Guard and NOAA, every five minutes.

"If people have questions they can call 835-7205," Lt. Allie Ferko of the Coast Guard said. "We have the program open on our desktop."

According to NOAA, wave gliders "...are quickly becoming the future of ocean research. They require no expensive research ships and can be deployed off the back of a small fishing vessel and run along pre-determined or custom courses. A single pilot with an internet connection can fly up to 10 at one time, depending on the mission."

The NOAA website says the wave gliders are manufactured by Liquid Robotics and are classified as Unmanned Maritime Vehicles or UMV and are one of the latest technological advances in the field of autonomous vehicles.

"The wave glider immediately converts wave motion into thrust, pulling the float along a programmed or piloted path, while solar panels replenish the batteries for sensors and communications," the website says. "Data are transmitted to shore via satellite and pilots can control the wave gliders from any device with an Internet connection."

The reason for the acidification study in the Sound is because scientists are eager to study the changing water parameters caused by melting glaciers in combination with rising carbon levels in oceans worldwide.

The gliders were launched from Seward earlier this spring and are slated to continue the data-gathering mission from now until the end of September.

Photo courtesy NOAA

Wave gliders on the dock in Seward with NOAA engineers Noah Lawrence-Slavas and Nick Delich. A US Fish and Wildlife boat, the M/V Tiglax, lends support in the background.


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