Follow ocean-going robots, and their scientists, for 10 days at sea

August 15, 2016
By: Public Affairs, UC Berkeley

What’s life like aboard a scientific research vessel plying the California coast deploying robots to unlock important data about climate change?

 research vessel USS Oceanu
The research vessel USS Oceanus, now testing carbon-measuring robots off the California coast.

A team of scientists and engineers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley have just set out on such a venture. And they took along lab writer Sarah Yang to document the scientists’ work — and, along the way, to provide answers to burning questions like “how do the scientists keep their coffee mugs from sliding when the boat tips back and forth?” (See slideshow to find out.)

The team took off over the weekend on a mission to test updated versions of a robotic float used to measure carbon dynamics in the ocean.

Leading the 13-member team is biogeochemist Jim Bishop, a faculty senior scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Area and a professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science. Bishop notes that much of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is sequestered in the oceans through the actions of microorganisms, but much about the process remains poorly understood. The biological carbon pump operates on time scales of about a week, so detecting changes and disturbances in the cycle would require ongoing monitoring that is currently impractical and cost-prohibitive to do with humans on a ship.

The solution? Robotic floats that could be left out at sea for months or even a year at a much lower cost, Sarah writes. The team’s mission is to test the devices-in-progress.

“No research team wants to stay out on a ship for that length of time; they’d go batty,” adds Bishop. “The robots are designed to follow the very fast process of the biological carbon pump.”

The team gathered Thursday in San Diego and spent two days getting the robots ready and loading their equipment and provisions aboard the research vessel Oceanus, before taking off at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 13.

Sarah Yang is sending daily updates about the 10-day mission, and about ocean science and life aboard the Oceanus.

Follow Sarah's updates from sea on the Berkeley Lab website