Ocean-faring robots set sail on Guinness record attempt

Four Wave Gliders from Liquid Robotics launch from outside the Golden Gate Bridge. The goal? To go further than any other surface robots in history, and to show new ways of collecting massive amounts of oceanic data.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
Four ocean-faring robots were taken beyond the Golden Gate Bridge Thursday on their way to a launch that would begin a world-record attempt for the longest distance ever traveled by robots on the surface of the planet. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Four robots left the Golden Gate today on an across the globe mission to set a world distance record and demonstrate new data-gathering tools that could help save the planet.

The robots, known as Wave Gliders, were built by a Silicon Valley startup known as Liquid Robotics. And starting today, the four autonomous sea-faring craft are heading out on journeys to Australia and Japan with the intention of setting the Guinness World Record for the longest distance traveled on the surface of the Earth by a robot.

The four Wave Gliders are thought to be capable of traveling across the world without any fuel or outside propulsion. But setting records is really just a "stunt," said James Gosling, one of the creators of the Java programming language and now Liquid Robotics' chief software architect. By that, Gosling meant that going for the record would draw attention to the robots' real work: helping bring scientists, educators, students, industry, and many others access to a level of data about the world's oceans that may never have been possible before.

Java pioneer James Gosling on Liquid Robotics at St. Francis Yacht Club by Daniel Terdiman

Although Liquid Robotics launched its world-record attempt today, its Wave Gliders have been deployed around the world for some time. Already, the company said, the robots have logged more than 150,000 miles on many different kinds of projects. Among them have been efforts to track the spread of oil in the Gulf of Mexico after 2010's Deepwater Horizon disaster.

James Gosling, one of the inventors of the Java programming language, is now the Liquid Robotics chief software architect. Here, Gosling (in pink) explains the Wave Glider. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

According to Liquid Robotics senior vice president of operations Graham Hine, a base Wave Glider costs about $140,000, and one tricked out with a range of sensors can run between $250,000 and $500,000 each. The four robots heading to Australia and Japan--with two headed to each country--cost about $220,000 each.

Autonomous Wave Gliders travel the oceans collecting data

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But Hine said that while Liquid Robotics is happy to sell the gliders, it is just as happy to provide them to companies and institutions needing to do extensive oceanic research as a service. For that, the company charges between $1,500 and $3,000 a day, Hine said. Typically, such missions have lasted either 60 or 90 days, while a few have gone on for a full year.

Not alone in ocean exploration
Although Liquid Robotics' world record attempt is the latest effort to bring attention to the plight of the seas and how little they are being explored, it is hardly the only one. Others include Richard Branson's Virgin Oceanic Five Dives, which involves its own record-breaking try. That initiative is going to be attempting to make it to the deepest points of each of the world's five oceans.

To do so, Branson is using a deep-sea submersible from Hawkes Ocean Technologies known as the DeepFlight Challenger. As the company put it upon announcing Five Dives, its deep-sea exploration "offers an unprecedented opportunity to conduct scientific research and to expand our knowledge of the unique conditions, ecosystems, and geology that exist at the bottom of the oceans."

Today, Chris Welch, who will pilot the DeepFlight Challenger on a dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench--the deepest spot on Earth--said at the Liquid Robotics event that oceanic exploration has finally hit a "tipping point" and that it's vital that humans learn more about what's deep in our oceans, especially when it comes to the amount of carbon dioxide trapped underwater.

Chris Welch, who will pilot a DeepFlight Challenger deep-sea submersible to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, was on hand at the Liquid Robotics event Thursday representing Virgin Oceanic. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Another Liquid Robotics partner is Google, and at today's event, the manager of Ocean in Google Earth Jenifer Foulkes said that she hopes that much of the data that will be returned from the Wave Gliders will be used in education--and that the more data is available on the oceans, the better the world will be at preparing for disasters like the Gulf oil spill.

5 percent explored
For Liquid Robotics, the rationale behind building Wave Gliders is that although our oceans cover 71 percent of the planet, just 5 percent of them have been explored. And to those who study the seas, and see how endangered they are, it's crucial that more research is done.

"We're far behind the curve from where we need to be," Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told CNET last year. "People look at the surface, and they think that's the ocean, and because they can't see what's going on below, they think everything's just fine. But those of us with decades of exploration [experience know that] the ocean is in trouble, and therefore so are we."

Earle said that that's because the Earth's seas drive climate and weather and generate most of our oxygen. But humanity has largely been standing idly by as the marine ecosystems that generate most of the oxygen are dying out or struggling due to factors such as pollution, over-fishing, changes in chemistry, and more.

To date, the 70-person Liquid Robotics has made about 100 Wave Gliders. The company has raised about $40 million, including its recent D round led by Vantage Point Capital Partners, which was worth about $22 million. And according to CEO Bill Vass, companies and institutions around the world have been using the Wave Gliders in fields such as fishing, oil and gas exploration, ocean mining, shipping, and more.

And that's because the Wave Gliders, which weigh in at 198.4 pounds, and have a float that is 82 inches by 24 inches, a glider that's 16 inches by 75 inches, and wings that are 42 inches long, were designed for optimum performance on the most common oceanic waves. They can also be loaded with sensors that are capable of gathering many different kinds of information, including location, weather, water and air temperature, wave height, water color, water pressure, barometric pressure, and more.

Ultimately, Vass suggested, the robots are really about giving those who use them the ability to gather real-time data on any ocean and at any time.

One reason, said Hine, is that because the robots are autonomous and self-powered--they have "flapping" wings that are propelled by wave action, and their various sensors are powered by solar--they are built to traverse the globe without human intervention. Yet, they are also able to be monitored via the Internet. Those who "pilot" them are able to check in on them at any time using a smart phone.

Hard, not easy
While Liquid Robotics' effort to break the world-record is really about drawing attention to the Wave Glider program, Hine pointed out that successfully setting the mark for longest surface distance traveled by a robot is no simple task.

"This is something you do not because it is easy," Hine told a crowd of a couple hundred gathered at the St. Francis Yacht Club here for the launch, "but because it is hard."

But Hine added that he is confident that the Wave Gliders are capable of making their way to Japan and Australia, in spite of the many impediments they may encounter along the way--storms, netting, ships, and so forth.

And, he added, it's worth it in the name of science and so Liquid Robotics can "prove this technology can expand our understanding of the oceans and science."

Hine also said that Liquid Robotics plans to offer the data the four Wave Gliders will gather on their long journeys for free to anyone that wants them. "The data is there as an invitation to the world's community to help us understand what it means," he said.

Liquid Robotics is also issuing a challenge to the world community: Anyone who wants to use the data can present the company with an abstract for what the data can be used for. The company will select five entrants to present their cases, and one winner who will be given access to a Wave Glider for six months.

That winner will probably not be the one that pilots the robot, however. Although they are light and robust, they still face physical challenges on the oceans. But according to Gosling, storms may not be that menacing to them. The robots were designed, Gosling said, to survive "astonishing" waves, including those from massive storms. "These guys just stay out there and say, yahoo," said Gosling. "These guys love the waves."