Surfboard-Sized Robot Vessel Makes Journey Across the Pacific

A vessel built by a Silicon Valley-based company broke a world record

By Joe Rosato Jr.
|  Wednesday, Dec 5, 2012  |  Updated 7:22 PM PDT
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Surf's Up

Liquid Robotics

One of Liquid Robotics's Wave Glider's in action. The surfboard-sized robot proved capable of traveling 9,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean with its arrival in Australia on Wednesday.

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As the small boat bobbed in 6-foot waves off Bundaberg, Australia, Graham Hine caught a glimpse of the tiny surfboard-sized vessel churning through the surf.

"Just driving up to it in the boat and seeing it there in the water, really having swam 9,000 miles, was pretty amazing," recalled Hine, the senior vice president of operations for California-based Liquid Robotics, Inc.

The Sunnyvale company’s wave-propelled glider, nicknamed Papa Mau, arrived in Australia this week, marking the end of a year-long, 9,000 mile trek across the Pacific Ocean. The journey broke the world record for distance traveled by an unmanned vessel.

Papa Mau set out from the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco in November 2011. along with three of the company's other wave gliders.

Two headed for Japan, while the other pair aimed for Hawaii on their way to their final destination of Australia. Papa Mau got to Australia first, having endured brutal storms, ripping currents and even a shark attack. 

"There was a tooth embedded in the rubber," said Hine, who had scientists review the item. "Sure enough, it’s a shark tooth."

But ever the trouper, the robot continued to transmit back scientific data from its solar-powered sensors, giving scientists rare access to a long swath of the Pacific Ocean.

"We were able to collect temperature information, water chemistry information, current information, weather information," said James Gosling, Liquid Robotics’ chief software engineer.

The wave gliders resemble over-sized Boogie Boards with racks of fins submerge below the surface.

The waves catch the fins to propel the vessel forward, indefinitely. The rudder is controlled by team members back in Sunnyvale who follow the vessels' progress on large digital maps – helping steer clear of passing ships.

The wave gliders' true role is as scientific observers, venturing to places where actual scientists would have trouble reaching. Their solar-powered sensors and cameras have been used to search for oil, monitor weather and collect data on climate change.

"The exciting part is not making it to Australia but the journey in between," Gosling said. "Because the journey is where the data is. The data is out in the ocean."

But the successful trek to Australia represents a victory for the company, and its aim of demonstrating the devices' durability.

Hine said the company may now use the wave gliders to explore Antarctica and points beyond.

"To go across the ocean now," said Hines, "no one can tell me this technology does not have legs."

See the Wave Glider in action below:

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