Subscribe to Making Waves

Ocean Service Feeds

What is a Podcast?

A podcast is a an audio file published on the web. The files are usually downloaded onto computers or portable listening devices such as iPods or other players.

Read more about podcasting from

Find other podcasts from the US government

Making Waves: Episode 23 (April 8, 2009)


This month, a small torpedo-shaped robot named the ‘Scarlet Knight’ will begin a six-month underwater journey, in an attempt to glide all the way from New Jersey to Spain.

If it makes it to the other side of the pond, this craft will go down in history as the first unmanned underwater vehicle to cross the Atlantic. The amazing part? It has no propeller or engine of any kind. It’s ocean-powered. And it’s run by undergraduate students from Rutgers University in New Jersey.

It’s Wednesday, April 8th, and this is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

(Ocean Glider)

So how will the Scarlet Knight glide all the way from New Jersey to Spain. Unlike a submarine, a ship, or a torpedo…this ocean robot doesn’t have a propeller. In fact it doesn’t have any means of propulsion of all. What it does have is large moveable fins, and a large on-board battery pack that allows its buoyancy to gently change over time.

This allows the glider to slowly move up and down through the water. And as it does so, its large fins ride the natural movement of ocean currents … and it moves forward. It’s the same basic way that a glider in the air works with its long wings, except the ocean glider can glide up as easily as it glides down.

Zdenka Willis, program director for NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System, said the Scarlet Knight 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.

[Zdenka Willis] “The ocean glider is, some people talk about it like a torpedo. I prefer ocean robot. It’s about five to six feet long and it’s basically got fins on it, and it basically uses the currents to dive down into the ocean column, back up to the surface, and it can measure a whole host of things. Primarily, initially, it measures temperature and salinity, but as we’re working on the glider, we’re expanding the glider to put different payloads in there. So we’ve got some gliders now that are testing phytoplankton, and so we can actually see the phytoplankton in a 3-D column; so we’ve got some optical, 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.”

This is actually the second try for the Scarlet Knight -– that’s Knight as in the jousting variety. It’s the mascot of Rutgers University. Well, there’s actually a course at Rutgers called ‘Crossing the Atlantic’ where undergrads are taking what they learn in oceanography, engineering, and other disciplines and applying it in the glider mission.

Last year, the glider made it all the way to the Azores before springing a leak and sinking. It didn’t make it to Spain, but it did set the world record for distance covered by an ocean glider. The students learned a lot from the first attempt, and all of those lessons learned are in the new glider.

[Zdenka Willis] “This glider will actually dive twice as deep, to 200 meters. It includes this new surface. It’s a coating and it’s to try and prevent critters from attaching to the glider, and it’s really pretty interesting. When you touch the glider it’s kind of sticky, but as soon as you put water on it, it just smooths out, so that’s new. The other big change is that we can now measure battery power. Last year, we were flying blind, just hoping the batteries wouldn’t give out. But this year now there’s a way to measure what the battery life is, so we know and they’ve been doing testing on … if I go really fast, what kind of energy does it take? If we go backwards? If we do turns?  And then they’ve done some new software that allows us to talk to the glider more effectively and more efficiently. And most of that was started by the students last year. ”

Willis is involved in the project because the national Integrated Ocean Observing System is made up of scores of partners from all levels of government, from industry, from nongovernmental organizations … and one of those partners is the mid-Atlantic coastal ocean observing regional association. Rutgers is a part of this association.  If this sounds confusing, well it kind of is. But that’s because the ocean is really big…there’s a lot to observe … so the ocean observing system Willis heads is sort of the glue that holds together and helps steer this vast network of partners all involved with measuring and observing different aspects of the ocean. The Integrated Ocean Observing System, or IOOS for short -- keep projects like the ocean glider Atlantic crossing moving forward. 

And speaking of moving forward, Willis explained how the ocean glider is remotely controlled by Rutgers students to keep it moving toward Europe.

[Zdenka Willis] “So the ocean currents are what actually steers it, but there is software and the glider basically pops up and it kind of phones home. We use the Irridium satellite and it phones home and it emails, so we can actually do some amount of guiding and driving, and we can drive it from anywhere. You know, the guys at Rutgers joke that they support a lot of Navy exercises and they’ve actually driven gliders from McDonalds in Cleveland, Ohio, just to prove that one can do that. But really what they’re doing is giving it new way points, and they’re doing that evaluating the ocean information they have to try to ride through currents, and not get stuck in currents going the wrong way, because the whole idea, at least in the glider crossing the Atlantic, is to continue to go towards the European coast.”

While the glider is, well, gliding through the ocean, it’s also collecting data. That’s its main mission, and it’s why NOAA, the Navy, and many other agencies are very interested in glider technology. Gliders are relatively cheap, they have endurance, and they help fill holes in the ocean data we’re collecting.

We have satellites in space and buoys dotting the ocean that provide us with information like currents, waves, temperature, and pressure right now, at one point. The unmanned ocean gliders, though, can move around. This, Willis said, can provide us with better ability to forecast ocean conditions—and the extra data from the gliders will help us build better models to predict long-term changes in the ocean and the climate.

[Zdenka Willis] “When we measure the ocean, we need to do that in total. The satellites that are flying overhead are very critical to give us wide swaths of the ocean and to be able to process a lot of the ocean. But that’s on the surface. The buoys give us both surface measurements and then we put equipment below the buoy down the water column, but that gives us a very specific real-time temperature, salinity, waves, at one location.”

[Zdenka Willis] “The glider compliments that because we can go three dimensional. So we can basically fly the gliders north to south, east to west in a three dimensional pattern, so when we take that water column with the individual buoy and marry it up with the satellite data, that allows us to assimilate all of this data into models and actually do forecasts, because 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. 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.”

So from a science perspective, what makes the Rutgers effort important is that it’s bringing us closer to the day when unmanned gliders roam the sea, collecting vital data from our vast ocean.  After all, Willis said, we don’t know much about our oceans, so every new observing asset we get out there is going to be a big help. And the ocean glider is poised to play an important role in the future.

[Zdenka Willis] “We always say, and it’s true, 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. 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.”

[Zdenka Willis] “I think the day is soon when we’ll see gliders providing oceanographic information. The Navy has just done a recent purchase of a number of gliders for their operations…so I think that day is sooner rather than later.”

You can keep track of the mission by visiting Rutger University’s Web site. It’s a long link, so glide over to for that address. On the Rutger’s site, you can track where the glider is, get regular blog updates, and see the data the Scarlet Knight is collecting. For Willis, the science part – the data collection – is important, but she’s also excited about how this project is inspiring and motivating young students:

[Zdenka Willis] “I think that, particularly with the glider mission, I think that 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.”

A special thanks to Zdenka Willis, director of NOAA’s national Integrated Ocean Observing System.

That’s all for this week. If you have questions about this week’s podcast, about our ocean and coasts, or about the National Ocean Service, send us a note. We’re at

And here comes the ocean …

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service. See you next time.