Cal Poly biological sciences professor Mark Moline and computer engineering assistant professor Chris Clark said there is almost no knowledge of what is happening in the Arctic ecosystem during the winter (polar night). Robot participation was necessary to reach certain areas that had never before been discovered.
During the two-week expedition, Moline, Clark and computer engineering alumni Scott Layton and Robbie Plankenhorn lived in total darkness in an old coal mining settlement turned research station.
“This was the first time we really had to deal with harsh conditions,” Clark said. “There were extreme conditions like the cold, dark and polar bears. You always had to go with someone with a rifle.”
The expedition was first conceived of when it was commissioned as part of the NORUS program titled “Technology Development for Marine Monitoring and Ocean Observation.” Moline started the program by writing a grant to the Norwegian Minister of Higher Education.
“I thought what students were lacking was a perspective and hands-on experience in other disciplines,” he said. “In this case, I thought biology students needed more background and experience in engineering to better be able to sample and investigate the oceans and particularly the Arctic undergoing climate changes.”
Moline and Clark carefully selected the students based on their experience with the robots and put them through a one-week training course before they moved into the research station. The students’ participation in the expedition widened their perspectives on the opportunities available in the technical aspect of research. “As computer engineers, we tend to focus on programming, but the logistics becomes a huge part of testing, getting it there and getting it working,” Layton said.
Some of the tools the students helped operate were Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV), a Remotely Operating Vehicle (ROV) and an ocean bottom crawler. Moline, who first began working with underwater robots in 1996 at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and did his post-doctoral thesis in Antarctica, said he saw this expedition as the perfect opportunity to further his research and learn about how life works in total darkness.
“Personally, I have conducted a number of underwater missions with my autonomous underwater vehicle. Specifically, we are looking at the distributions of small organisms in the water, and how they move and interact with each other,” Moline said. “We are trying to piece together the winter food web and these efforts help with that.”
Clark, who worked in conjunction with two Norwegian biologists, was the only engineer project installer to participate in the project . He began studying underwater robots at Stanford in 2004 while earning his Ph.D.
“The experiments were so applied. We went into a place too dangerous for the divers and got to sample arctic algae that grows only in the Arctic,” Clark said. “It was cool to pick this through a robot that could reach those depths. Very little is known and very little studies have been done on the polar night, and we wanted to look at the activity of life.”
Plankenhorn said to retrieve the algae, divers would have needed to perform a four-hour dive in ice-cold water, so they decided to use an ROV to get the sample. “We were there as support. They wanted to use the ROV, but we didn’t have the arm and Clark had to ship one out there and we had to make it happen,” he said.
In addition to providing support for the biologists by managing the equipment, the engineers also documented their trip. The team blogged about their research and posted videos and photos of their findings.
“This was one additional means to touch the outside world and share our experiences,” Moline said. “We think we are doing something special here, not only in terms of the science, but with the educational approach.”
Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Applications Center, a leading underwater robot research organization, heard about the blog and linked to it on their Web site. Clark said he hoped that the blog could help the public learn more about their research and generate funding for future expeditions.
The expedition to Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, in Norway’s Arctic region to develop and use technology to study the Arctic ecosystems was funded by the Norwegian Government, National Geographic and the United States National Science Foundation.
Clark said he hoped the expedition could contribute more information and further devices on the Arctic ecosystem.
“I want to create new technology for robots to get close to things like ice without colliding and to get more gains in terms of our sampling,” he said.