For More Information

podcastLearn more about the Scarlet Knight (interview with Zdenka Willis, program director for NOAA's Integrated Ocean Observing System) Making Waves (audio podcast)

NOAA's Integrated Ocean Observing System Program

external link"Mission to Cross the Atlantic Ocean," Coastal Ocean Observation Lab, Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences (mission updates, blog, current glider position, ocean data, photos, and more)



Ocean Glider Set to Attempt Atlantic Crossing

photo of the Scarlet Knight, an ocean glider

This may be the first unmanned underwater vehicle to cross the Atlantic. Meet the Scarlet Knight, an ocean glider from Rutgers University. (Image courtesy of Rutgers University)

Undergraduate students from Rutgers University are finalizing preparations to launch an ocean glider on a journey from New Jersey to Spain.

If the craft completes the trip, it will be the first unmanned underwater vehicle to successfully cross the Atlantic.

The 'Scarlet Knight,' named after the mascot of the University, represents a new breed of ocean-powered roving vehicles propelled by the movement of ocean currents.

Unlike a submarine or torpedo, an ocean glider does not have a propeller. Instead, the vehicle changes buoyancy with the aid of a small piston driven by onboard battery packs. As the glider slowly rises up and down through the water column, large wings provide forward momentum by "flying" through the water and "riding" ocean currents.

Zdenka Willis, program director for NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS®), said the Rutgers craft will measure ocean temperature and salt levels, but this is just the beginning of what ocean gliders will be tasked to do in coming years. The NOAA IOOS Program provides support and funding for projects such as the Atlantic crossing effort to improve ocean monitoring and observation capabilities nationwide.

The Rutgers initiative points to a day in the not-too-distant future when unmanned gliders will roam the sea.

"We’ve got some gliders now that are testing phytoplankton, so we can actually see the phytoplankton in a 3-D column; we’ve got some optical [glider payloads], we’ve got some acoustic sensors we’re testing on the glider. So it’s simply a vehicle that allows us to measure the ocean column from the top to the bottom in a continuous fashion at a relatively low cost,” she said.

This is the second try for the Scarlet Knight. The project is part of 'Crossing the Atlantic,' a class that allows students to apply what they've learned in oceanography, engineering, and other disciplines.

Last year, the glider made it all the way to Portugal's Azores Islands before springing a leak and sinking. While it didn’t make it to Spain, it set the world record for distance covered by an ocean glider.

The new Scarlet Knight accounts for lessons learned during the first attempt:

  • It can dive twice as deep (up to 200 meters or about 656 feet).
  • It incorporates a new surface material that will help the machine to remain free of clinging sea creatures trying to catch a lift.
  • The glider's battery life is longer and remote monitoring of battery life is now possible.
  • The new machine includes many onboard software upgrades to make the device more effective, efficient, and responsive.

Once underway, the ocean glider will be remotely controlled by Rutgers students to keep it moving toward Europe. It will continually collect ocean data as it travels, periodically surfacing to 'phone home.'

photo of Scarlet Knight secured for travel on boat

The Scarlet Knight, secured for travel. Once deployed into the water, the device will glide through the water while students navigate to benefit from the power of ocean currents. (Image courtesy of Rutgers University)

NOAA, the U.S. Navy, and many other agencies are interested in ocean gliders because the devices are relatively cheap, tough, and mobile.

While satellites and buoys provide information such as currents, waves, temperature, and pressure, these tools specialize in real-time data. Satellites measure wide swaths of ocean, but only on the surface. Buoys provide lots of data, but only at one point.

The unmanned ocean gliders, however, can glide through the water column in any direction and at varying depths. This, Willis said, improves the ability to forecast ocean conditions and predict long-term changes in the ocean and the climate.

“It’s good to know what the actual conditions are now, but it’s even more critical to know, for many applications, what the forecast is in six hours, 12 hours, 24 hours, and 48 [hours]. Then all of this data is collected and recorded and eventually gets into a climate data record for long-term series so we can see how it changes over time,” she said.

From a science perspective, Willis said the Rutgers initiative points to a day in the not-too-distant future when unmanned gliders will roam the sea. These devices, she added, are poised to become an important component of a growing network of observation tools that, taken together, are helping us better understand the dominant feature of our planet.

“We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about our ocean. Probably two percent of our ocean has been surveyed. And when you look at what the ocean is, it is the birth place of our weather and climate," Willis said.

"It is the shipping lanes for all of our commerce and transportation. It’s where many, many people live, work, and play. And what Americans really want are healthy oceans and coasts and the ability to maintain the quality of life that they have, and we just don’t know much about the ocean.”

Of equal importance, she added, is how this project is inspiring and motivating young students.

“It's certainly about the oceanography, and it’s about pushing the limits of ocean observing, and that’s very important. But equally important, it’s about the educational aspect of the students and our undergraduates. It’s inspiring them to take their book knowledge and turn it into practical knowledge, and it’s really about the next generation of our oceanographers and scientists,” she said.