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Operating in Shallow Waters, AUVs Sample Tidal Rivers and Estuaries

NOAA image of mini autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV.Dec. 27, 2006 The NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science successfully tested a new generation of autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUV, in the Newport River, N.C., estuary at depths often less than two feet. The vehicles, navigating via Global Positioning System, or GPS, and pre-programmed guidance, collected critical environmental data including oxygen, salinity, temperature, chlorophyll, acidity, sediment and water depth. (Click NOAA image for larger view of mini autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

"Operating in a group array, AUVs can be programmed to communicate with one another and can work to determine algal bloom intensity and the size," said Patricia Tester, a NOAA oceanographer. "Additionally, AUVs can be used to assist reservoir managers to quickly and accurately identify potential water quality issues, aid fish farmers by monitoring overall pond conditions and help coastal managers assess deep water ecology in a safe, cost effective manner."

Each AUV, at 12 pounds and three feet in length, is relatively small in comparison to its predecessors, and can operate in almost any water depth. Communicating through a high-speed radio frequency, AUVs transmit position, status and sensor readings to shipboard computers. To achieve optimum data collection, the vehicle can be programmed to ascend and descend at any programmed range and frequency from the ocean floor at depths of 100 feet to the surface throughout its mission track.

Launchable from boats as small as 16 feet, or even from larger AUVs, the torpedo-like vessels could prove most useful in detecting early warning signs of harmful algal blooms in estuaries. Algal blooms can produce toxic or harmful effects in people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds; adversely affecting the "health" of local and regional economies.

"Data of this complexity and range, with real-time results, has been difficult to obtain in short periods of time," said Brian Julius, acting deputy director of the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, which is one of many NOAA offices testing the unmanned technology. "The micro AUVs, developed by Nekton Research LLC, can each cover nearly seven acres in under four hours, providing a cost effective means to quickly retrieve data and determine threats to estuary ecology."

"As we pursue answers to complex coastal resource issues such as harmful algal blooms, the development by our partners of innovative technology is critical to meeting that challenge," says John H. Dunnigan, director of the NOAA Ocean Service. "AUV technology is one tool that is an increasingly important part of our efforts to gather information in a cost-effective and integrated manner to assist coastal managers."

Estuaries—where the rivers meet the seas—are some of the most productive ecosystems in the world harboring unique plant and animal communities. Since estuaries have a mixture of fresh water and salty seawater, many animal species rely on them for food and places to nest and breed. Human communities also rely on estuaries for food, recreation and jobs.

The NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science conduct research ranging from the study of biomolecular changes due to coral bleaching, to the causes of shellfish disease, and modeling the effects of climate change on fisheries stock assessment. The research is broad, multi-disciplinary, geographically diverse and involves many partners. The goal of the centers is to improve the science upon which coastal managers make decisions.

In 2007 NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, celebrates 200 years of science and service to the nation. Starting with the establishment of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson much of America's scientific heritage is rooted in NOAA. The agency is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of the nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 60 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

Relevant Web Sites
NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

NOAA Office of Response and Restoration

NOAA Ocean Portal

Media Contact:
Daniel Parry, NOAA Ocean Service, (301) 713-3066