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Research robots survive a year under Antarctic ice

Seaglider deployment
Researchers deploy a Seaglider underwater drone from the South Korean icebreaker Araon in January 2018. (Paul G. Allen Philanthropies / UW APL / Columbia LDEO)

It’s been a year since a squadron of underwater robots was sent out to monitor the underside of Antarctica’s Dotson Ice Shelf, and researchers report that the whole squad has survived the harsh southern winter.

Except for one unfortunate battery-powered drone, that is.

“The one that hasn’t come back, it could be any number of things,” said Jason Gobat, a senior principal oceanographer at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory. Maybe something broke, or maybe it got stuck in the silt at the bottom of the sea.

The good news is that two other Seaglider drones are continuing to transmit data via satellite. Four free-floating EM-APEX probes have been heard from as well.

Craig Lee, another senior principal oceanographer at the UW lab, said getting useful scientific data from the robo-squadron amounts to mission success for the research project known as Ocean Robots Beneath Ice Shelves, or ORBIS.

The experiment, supported with nearly $2 million in funding from Seattle’s Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, has shown that the robots can use acoustic signals to navigate their way under the ice shelf, monitor the water that flows into and out of the ice shelf’s subsurface cavity, and keep operating for a whole year.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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