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What underwater robots might be able to tell us about India's monsoon

Scientists are releasing swimming robots into India's Bay of Bengal in an effort to learn more about rainfall patterns. 

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In this July 18, 2011 file photo, Indian farmers carry paddy saplings for planting in a rice field on the outskirts of Gauhati, India. The seasonal monsoon, which hits the region between June and September, delivers more than 70 percent of India's annual rainfall.

Anupam Nath/AP/File

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Seven swimming robots will take to the sea later this month to help scientists investigate unanswered questions about India's monsoon season. 

After departing from the southern port city of Chennai, researchers will spend a month at sea releasing the torpedo-shaped underwater robots across a 400-kilometer (250-mi.) stretch of water in the Bay of Bengal. The robots, which will navigate to a depth of 1,000 meters, are programmed to transmit data measuring water salinity, temperature, and current via satellite. 

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Lead researcher Adrian Matthews describes the Indian monsoon as “notoriously hard to predict.”

“It is a very complicated weather system and the processes are not understood or recorded in science,” Dr. Matthews said in a press release. “Nobody has ever made observations on this scale during the monsoon season itself so this is a truly groundbreaking project.”

The project is led by the University of East Anglia, where Matthews is a professor of meteorology.

The potential danger of working on a ship during the severe weather of monsoon season has deterred many researchers from doing so, resulting in a lack of observations. But Matthews and his team anticipate that the swimming robots, which aren’t put in peril by strong winds or high waves, may be able to provide them with some long due data about how ocean conditions affect rainfall patterns. 

“We don’t know what we’re going to find,” oceanographer Ben Webber, who is a research associate at the University of East Anglia, told the Associated Press. “We may confirm what we think theoretically. But we really don’t know. It’s quite exciting.”

The monsoon, which first hit India on June 8 this year, delivers more than 70 percent of the subcontinent’s annual rainfall and heavily influences the nation's agricultural industry. This year’s monsoon arrived a week later than usual and has been slow in moving north.

"We need to better understand how the monsoon works," said meteorologist D.P. Yadav, who works on monsoon forecasts for the government, to the Associated Press. "Most of our states' economies depend on it. It is the most important weather event for India."