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Swarms of tiny robots to monitor the oceans

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(Read caption) A number of scientific organizations are working on pint-size robots that will act much like schools of fish to explore and monitor the oceans.

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Oceans cover about 71 percent of the earth's surface. Much of what happens in this watery world — and by extension, almost three-quarters of the planet's surface — remains maddeningly beyond humanity's ability to easily measure it.

Scientists have so far used their understanding of physics and fluid dynamics, combined with what direct observations are available, to infer how the ocean works. These inferences remain, in many cases, best guesses -- albeit very well-informed best guesses. But scientists inevitably dream of a day when they can directly observe the goings-on of the ocean.

That day, it seems, is moving closer and closer to actuality.

Various ongoing projects are enhancing our ability to monitor, in real time, what happens in the ocean. An improved ability to peek into this previously hidden realm will aid in several important endeavors — fishery management, understanding the impacts of climate change on ocean dynamics, and forecasting tsunamis among them.

In that regard, scientists at the University of San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography of the University of California San Diego are now developing some potentially important new devices: small, low-cost, ocean-going robots that, in some respects, act like schools of fish. They swarm.

Earlier this week, the National Science Foundation awarded grants to two teams at Scripps. The goal: to develop new, ocean-monitoring robots that are deployed, and operate, in groups.

The so-called autonomous underwater explorers (AUEs) will work as follows: Many tens or even hundreds of pint-size AUEs will be dropped into the ocean along with a few "motherships" — basketball-sized AUEs.

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