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Seafaring robot braves sharks to scoop world record

“He weathered gale force storms, fended off sharks, spent more than 365 days at sea, skirted around the Great Barrier Reef, and finally battled and surfed the East Australian Current to reach his final destination in Hervey Bay near Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia.”

It sounds impressive by any devoted ocean researcher’s standards, but this scientific adventurer is a wave-powered robot dubbed Papa Mau. And these are the trials that the bot has had to endure on its way to scooping the world record for the longest distance travelled by an autonomous vehicle, says the Liquid Robotics, the US company that developed him.

The bot has set a new world record — with no past robotic voyagers coming close, says a spokesperson for the company. The next closest record appears to be that of an underwater glider RU27, also named Scarlet Knight, which clocked up almost 7,400 kilometres traversing the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.

Papa Mau, one of the company’s ‘Wave Gliders’ (pictured, above), navigated 9,000 nautical miles (16,668 kilometres) from San Francisco, California, to Australia. Named after Mau Piailug, a master navigator from Micronesia, the robot is one of four launched into the high seas by Liquid Robotics. Benjamin, a second Pacific-crossing bot, is due to reach Australia early next year; the two others are destined for Japan.

But being able to go the distance is not Papa Mau’s prime aim. The surfboard-like bot — split in two parts —  is a meticulous ocean scientist, according to its makers.

“We set off on the Pacific crossing journey to demonstrate that Wave Glider technology could not only survive the high seas and a journey of this length, but more importantly, collect and transmit ocean data in real-time from the most remote portions of the Pacific Ocean,” says Bill Vass, the company’s chief executive.

The Wave Gliders have a number of instruments aboard that record measures such as salinity, water temperature, fluorescence, weather, waves and dissolved oxygen. Papa Mua encountered and recorded observations on a 1,200-kilometre stretch of chlorophyll blooms around the Equator — which would normally be validated using satellite imagery, says Liquid Robotics.

So what could Papa Mua and bots like it do for ocean science? Some scientists say that robots may provide a way of reaping data from the seas that is cheaper than paying out for ships and crews to spend months adrift to do the same job.

Robots in the sea are increasingly being used for research — such as Tethys, which can pursue marine organisms underwater, and an underwater ‘lab-in-a-can’ that saves researchers from having to dive for ocean samples.

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