The smaller AUEs will communicate with the larger using acoustic signals. Together, the swarm will provide detailed and fine-grained information on how the water is moving — rising, falling, swirling, and so on. (Here's a video of Scripps scientist Jules Jaffe explaining how the marine robot swarms will work. )
The AUEs might be used to understand how currents might carry pollution, such as oil spills or sewage effluence, away from point of pollution. Likewise, they could aid in the design of marine protected areas by helping scientists understand how fish larvae disperse with currents.
When functional, these mini-robots will presumably be one of many tools in the National Science Foundation's Ocean Observatories Initiative. OOI, as it's called, aims to build a network of ocean sensors to "measure the physical, chemical, geological and biological variables in the ocean and seafloor."
In September, after more than a decade of planning, OOI received funding for construction from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and from NSF. (You can see the location of observatories here.)
And efforts to monitor the ocean don't stop there.
OOI will integrate into a larger, multiagency, public-private effort called the Integrated Ocean Observing System, or IOOS.
And IOOS itself will plug into the greater Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), in which 80 governments are participating.