Many fundamental processes of the world’s oceans are currently unobservable, due to limitations with present technology; there are few ways to collect data with both increasing spatial and temporal resolution. Moorings can collect data at high temporal resolution, but do not offer good spatial resolution. Satellite analysis cannot be performed in three dimensions. Water samples can give either good temporal or spatial resolution, but are too timely and costly to provide both.
The DISCOSci project is an effort to design and build an entirely new type of data collection system for the world's oceans. Within this system, data collection is handled by small, inexpensive, buoyancy-controlled robots called, ‘autonomous underwater explorers’ or AUEs. These AUEs are small enough to ride underwater currents, and record where the ocean takes them. Additional sensors onboard collect important data, such as the current water temperature, or the local concentration of algae. As satellite signals cannot penetrate surface waters, each AUE communicates acoustically with a network of intelligent buoys on the surface. These buoys can relay data and receive instructions in near real-time via satellite from ship or shore.
A swarm of twenty to one hundred of these small robots can collect fine-grained data over an area of several kilometers. Swarms of miniature AUEs could be used to track abalone larvae, and algal blooms. They can follow an oil spills and sewage dumps, and help predict where the ocean will carry them. They can follow the debris field of a downed airplane and help investigators locate the black box. Scientists can use the data collected from swarms of these AUEs to improve their models of underwater currents, and ultimately their understanding of how this affects life in the ocean.