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Making Waves: Episode 42 (January 6, 2010)

Last spring, an ocean glider named the Scarlet Knight was launched into the ocean off the East Coast of the U.S. It was the second attempt to complete the first-ever trans-Atlantic ocean crossing of an underwater, unmanned glider. Well, last month, the ocean robot completed the 7,410 kilometer trip in 221 days.

So we’re going to kick off the New Year with a salute to the Scarlet Knight, an amazing new breed of vehicle that harnesses the power of ocean currents to fly through the sea.

It’s Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010, and this is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

(Ocean Glider)

If you’re a regular listener to the podcast, you may recall that we spoke with Zdenka Willis last April when the Scarlet Knight was just about to begin its journey. Zdenka is the director of NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System, one of the many partner agencies that made this historic voyage possible.

Last month, Zdenka was one of several U.S. and Spanish officials who gathered together with residents of the town of Baiona, Spain, to celebrate the arrival of the craft.

It was a fitting place to hold the ceremony because it’s the same town where Christopher Columbus’ crew returned on a ship called the Pinta after their voyage to the New World in 1492.

[Zdenka Willis] “It was a spectacular event, and a very emotional event.  The entire town of Baiona, from the mayor on down, were so supportive of being able to be the town where we recovered the Scarlet Knight. For them, it was the second coming of the Pinta who had come with word of the new world, and now this new technology arrived in Spain and arrived in Baiona, and they really rolled out the red carpet.”

We’ll return to the ceremony in just a few minutes, but first let’s back up and talk a bit about the voyage of the Scarlet Knight and the new technology it represents.

The Scarlet Knight sort of looks like a torpedo, but it doesn’t have propellors or an internal engine. Instead, it uses large moveable fins, and a large on-board battery pack to gently change its buoyancy over time.

This allows the glider to slowly move up and down through the water. And as it does so, the big fins sticking out of the sides of the craft ride the natural movement of ocean currents. It’s like how a glider in the air works, except the ocean glider can glide up as easily as it glides down.

The big benefit of the device is that takes very little energy and it’s relatively cheap. This makes it a great tool to gather information about the ocean. It can also travel long, long distances underwater. How long? That was one of the things the Scarlet Knight project put to the test. Zdenka said that, in the beginning, no one knew if the little device would make it all the way across the pond.

[Zdenka Willis] “This was an extremely challenging mission. If you would asked all of us when she started out whether we thought she could make it across  we all hoped that she could but the percentages were pretty low. We had shipping to be careful of, we had a number of hurricanes that crossed the Atlantic that she had to be able to maneuver through and under , if you will. There's the biology. There are sharks, there are squid, there is the currents that we need to get her across the ocean, so it was a very, very challenging mission, and we are just pleased that we were able to accomplish this.”

During the first try back in 2008, the glider made it to the Azores before springing a leak and sinking. This time around, the device sported upgrades based on lessons learned from that first attempt. It had better communication capabilities, a more robust battery pack, and a special kind of coating to help keep what they call ‘biofoul’ -- mostly clams and barnacles -- from making their home on the craft. This coating was a big help, but project members did need to pay one visit to the Scarlet Knight during the voyage to clean off some of the critters.

[Zdenka Willis] “The biofouling coating came into play in that it allowed us to get across about  2/3s of the way, which is where  we lost the glider the first year, and we actually did start to see a degradation in the performance. We took a boat out of the Azores and actually dove on the glider, and we were able to see how the biology had adhered to the glider itself. And interestingly enough, where the coating was, we had much less adherence of the biology then we did where we didn't actually have the coating. So it was great to see where it worked, and how it worked, and that'll allow us to improve it on future missions. ”

While the main goal of the mission was to make the voyage across the Atlantic, the Scarlet Knight was also doing important work along the way  ... collecting data from the ocean to support NOAA, U.S. Navy, and NASA projects.

[Zdenka Willis] “It collected temperature, and salinity, and density, and currents. So, it was used in a number of ways. It was used to ground truth the satellite data  the remote sense data  from the altimetry, which is the NASA mission, as well as sea surface temperature to see how was the satellite data compared to what was being measured in situ. There's also a HYCOM model, which is basically an ocean dynamic circulation model, which is a new model, which is a Navy-NOAA effort, and so we would take the results of what the Scarlet Knight was telling us and verify wether the model was actually forecasting the conditions in the ocean. Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn't  so they've been able to take the information to make improvements in the HYCOM model. And, even just understanding the conditions in the middle of the Atlantic that we don’t often measure. So this continually recorded event for the five months that she was in the water, we now have a track of what it looks like, so that was really exciting that it was able to support not only NOAA, but Navy and NASA.”

What might surprise you about this mission is that it wasn’t just a U.S. federal effort. The project was actually run by undergraduate students from Rutgers University. Industry was also involved, through Webb-Teledyne Research, the company behind the ocean glider technology, and many other international agencies and institutions played a pivotal role.

[Zdenka Willis] “The Scarlet Knight mission didn’t just happen, that students said, ‘Oh, let’s try to fly this thing across the Atlantic. We’ll try in 2008. We didn’t make it. So we’ll do it in 2009.’ If it had not been for partners like the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, NASA, NOAA Research, people like Doug Webb of Webb-TeleDyne, other institutions like the University of Washington Applied Physics Labs, Scripps Institute, Woods Hole, who all said, ‘We want to work on this technology.’ And so partnerships have been formed to be able to bring these new technologies to bear.

[Zdenka Willis] “Then there’s the partnership at the non-Federal level. The intellectual prowess that we have in our academic institutions. The ingenuity and technology we have in U.S. industry. The work we do with state managers, and local managers, and tribal governments in, again, making sure that our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes are healthy and resilient and places that we love to visit, work, and play. So we do that through these partnerships. Internationally, we could not have done the mission for Scarlet Knight if we didn’t have these international partners.”

So the success of the Scarlet Knight mission is the result of many different groups working together. And these kind of partnerships are crucial to help us get the data we need to address bigger problems, like understanding ocean dynamics and climate change.

[Zdenka Willis] “It is very expensive to collect this oceanographic data. It’s expensive and it’s difficult. And if we don’t have those partnerships working together, then we’re not going to help the United States and then help the world to understand what’s going on in things like climate change.”

The technology behind the ocean glider is poised to play a big role in helping us solve these bigger problems.  Zdenka said that she expects that gliders will be playing a much larger role in collecting ocean data in this decade.

[Zdenka Willis] “The U.S. Navy has actually purchased 150 of these gliders for their missions, so I forsee probably in the next 3 to 5 years we’ll start to see these fleets of gliders being able to patrol the ocean if you will, collecting this oceanographic information.”

Now that we have the big picture in mind, let’s return to the ceremony held in Baiona, Spain on Dec. 9th.

[Zdenka Willis] “The Scarlet Knight was actually going to land for the first time on land there on the 9th of December, because she had been on the ship but she actually hadn’t made landing. But they couldn’t bring her all the way in, so she’s just out on the horizon, and they’ve got two zodiacs, one that has the glider, one that’s got the press. And the zodiac comes in and makes its triumphant ring around the bay there in front of the Pinta, and comes up to the pier, and we’ve got Spanish colleagues who are actually going to bring it up to the area is, and then, we had probably close to 200 school children, and these are ages, grades third to sixth grade who were part of the ceremony.”

Back in the U.S. before the mission started, American kids had written letters, which were put on a memory stick and placed in the glider along with a few other mementos. At the ceremony, one of the letters retrieved from the glider was translated into Spanish.

[Zdenka Willis] “And a young child read that letter and of course just stole the show.”

And then afterwards, the Spanish children had put together letters and pictures and that was given to Rutgers University.  The town of Baiona, meanwhile, were presented with a replica of the ocean glider that’s going to be placed in a new maritime museum there. And the town recorded the historic landing of the glider by unveiling a new plaque that now sits alongside commemorative plaques that record the landing of the Pinta and the 500th anniversary of that landing in 1993. That’s pretty august company. Zdenka said that really brought home the historical context of the importance of this technological feat.

[Zdenka Willis] “It’s an historic mission for it’s ability to advance technology. It is the epitome of what IOOS was put together to do, meaning it is a partnership whereby the federal agencies, the state, local , and academia come together to collect oceanographic information with our international partners to be able to understand things like climate change, and so this mission is just the epitome of what we’re really trying to accomplish in IOOS.”

So what’s next? Well, the Scarlet Knight mission started out many years ago in the form of a challenge issued from the director of NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, Dr. Rick Spinrad.  He was also at the ceremony in Spain with Zdenka, where he served up a new challenge to the team behind the successful voyage.

[Zdenka Willis] “Dr. Spinrad, who started this whole thing by a challenge, could not resist and did lay down the challenge that he would like for us to recreate the HMS Challenger mission, which was the mission that was really known for it’s oceanography, an around the world mission with an international partners. Let’s see if we can’t do each leg of the mission us ing these glider vehicles, so the challenge has been issued and it’s now up to us to figure out how we’re going to do that. It’s really exciting to see where ocean observing is going. Scarlet Knight showed us that we do have that innovative spirit and I’m looking forward to see where we go next with this. ”

(Closing)

Thanks to Zdenka Willis, director of NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System, for joining us today.

Glide over to oceanservice.noaa.gov for more news and information about the National Ocean Service. And you can send in your comments and suggestions about this podcast, our Web site, or about the ocean to nos.info@noaa.gov.

Now let’s cue the ocean sounds.

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service. We’ll be back in two weeks with our next episode.

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