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'R2D2s of the sea' sails across Pacific for science

Hoping to foster new scientific discoveries, four wave-propelled robots are now collecting data across the Pacific Ocean. See how you can help.

The Wave Rider robots will travel 33,000 nautical miles on their journey and collect 2.25 million pieces of data Liquidr

As you read this, four wave-propelled robots are making their way across the Pacific Ocean in a record-setting journey that will hopefully lead to new scientific discoveries. But they need your help.

With the support of Virgin Oceanic and Google Earth, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company Liquid Robotics launched four of its Wave Glider ocean robots on November 17 to embark on a PacX (as in Pacific crossing) expedition, where they are expected to collect 2.25 million pieces of data about the ocean. The Wave Gliders feature a wing system that uses wave motion to propel the robots, while solar panels power the various sensors used to collect data.

The robots set sail from San Francisco and will travel together to Hawaii. From there, the group will split up, with one pair going to Japan and the other pair sailing to Australia. The journey will cover 33,000 nautical miles and is expected to take more than 300 days to complete. If successful, it would be the longest distance ever traveled by an unmanned ocean vehicle. Yet, the mission isn't about setting world records, it's about learning more about the ocean.

According to Jenifer Austin Foulkes, Ocean in Google Earth manager, less than 10 percent of the ocean is mapped out, so the expedition creates a learning opportunity for everyone.

As the Wave Gliders, or as Foulkes refers to them "the R2D2s of the sea," make their way across the Pacific, they will transmit data via satellite about salinity, water temperature, waves, weather, fluorescence, and dissolved oxygen.

A wing system allows the Wave Riders to propel themselves forward using wave motion. Liquidr

All the information will then be uploaded to an online database that can be accessed by scientists, schools, and the general public for free, as long as they register on LiquidR PacX Web site. Users can also follow the expedition virtually through the Ocean Showcase on Google Earth's site.

To further the cause, Liquid Robotics is hosting a competition called the PacX Challenge where it will recognize the most innovative use of the ocean data. The winner will receive six months of free Wave Glider data services with custom configuration and routing. The company is accepting applications until April 23, 2012, so there's plenty of time to get in on this great opportunity.

Note: Turns out my CNET News colleague Daniel Terdiman actually got to the Liquid Robotics story first, so please check out his item for an in-depth look at the technology and history of this effort.