Jeremy Mathis is a supervisory oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and is an affiliate professor at the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He has worked with NOAA using unmanned systems to collect data in the Gulf of Alaska related to the health of our oceans. Unmanned Unplugged recently had the chance to talk to Mathis and learn more about his work with unmanned systems.
Can you tell us a little about your work and current research?
I am working on carbon and ocean acidification related issues in the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean. I just finished a large-scale project in the Arctic Ocean, funded by the National Science Foundation, to understand the process that control carbonate mineral saturation states in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea. I also have projects funded by the Alaska Ocean Observing System to make time-series measurements along an oceanographic line near Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska, and we have ocean acidification moorings all around Alaska.
Your background is oceanography, specifically studying ocean acidification in coastal regions. How are unmanned systems useful in this field? What do unmanned systems offer over traditional data collection methods?
Unmanned systems allow us to collect high-resolution data that is not possible with a ship. Taking a ship out costs $40- to $50,000 a day to operate, and before you do any science you can see how quickly those costs can add up. You may only get a chance to go to a place one or two times a year, and you can only stay there for one day. The data become very synoptic and you can’t develop an understanding of the context of what’s going on at a location a month before or after you make ship-based observations. Now, if you consider a glider that only cost a few thousand dollars a day to operate, you can stay in one area for months at a time to really get a complete understudying of how a system changes over the course of a year or during a process that you are interested in, like ice breakup or a biological bloom. Unmanned vehicles are never going to replace ships, but they certainly allow us to collect more data in a very cost-effective way.
How did you get involved using unmanned systems in your research?
This has been a progression over the past few years as the technologies have developed. There have been some amazing developments in the past five years. We can now make autonomous measurements of things like carbon dioxide concentrations and pH that used to require ship-based analytical labs. We started using these new unmanned sensors on moorings because of the large batteries that were required, but as battery technology has progressed, their size and weight have become smaller, and we can now put them on things like gliders.
Your plan is to use unmanned technology to show the impact that ocean acidification can have on the environment. Specifically, we see you and NOAA plan to monitor the ocean acidification in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. How will unmanned systems be helpful in this mission?
This is again a case, where we can’t be everywhere all the time with ships. The gliders, particularly in a place like Prince William Sound, will let us monitor how the waters in the sound change over the course of the summer as glacier melt water goes from zero to its maximum and then back to zero again. That’s something that we could never do with a ship.
Do you see any other benefits unmanned systems could provide in regards to monitoring marine life in the Alaska region?
Absolutely. New sensors are always being developed, and their integration in unmanned systems is going to be the major focus for us in the next few years. We need to be able to measure things like plankton composition to see how the biology is affected by the water chemistry. I don’t think it will be too much longer before we have that capability on our gliders. That will be a real game changer for us in terms of understanding the impacts of OA.
As this technology continues to develop, how do you foresee it being used by researchers in the future? What do you see as its greatest benefit?
I think the greatest benefit is allowing more scientists to collect more data. I keep coming back to this, but ship time is expensive and we don’t have a lot of ships, so it limits the amount of people who can go out and collect data. As the cost of the unmanned vehicles comes down in the next few years, a whole lot of scientists are going to be able to own and operate their own data-collecting platform. Think of it like crowd sourcing: The more eyes you have on a problem, the faster our understanding will develop.
What does that future hold for you and unmanned systems? Do you have any other exciting NOAA projects planned? What would you like to do next?
We are always pushing the envelope with our technology. NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory has one of the best engineering groups in the world. Right now, we’re working on integrating our carbon and OA sensors into a new system called the sail drone. It’s about the size of a hobby sail boat. It can hold 10 times more equipment and sensors that our current Wave Gliders can and travel up to 10 knots depending on the wind, which is what propels it. Once these things are ready to go, we could deploy it off the Washington coast and sail it all the way up to the Arctic remotely and then have it turn around and come back. Imagine a whole fleet of these systems continuously surveying the ocean.