Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
CANON Initiative
Autonomous underwater vehicles

Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are mobile platforms that will allow the in-situ sampling of microbial communities. This will help the CANON team to gain a greater understanding of the dynamics of microbial communities including the effects of harmful algal blooms (HABs).

MBARI began developing unmanned and untethered vehicles, called AUVs as a way to take the high personnel costs out of scientific sampling of the ocean. These platforms are low cost as compared with ships but can nevertheless be directed as to where, when, and what they sample to full ocean depth. Knowing that there would be demand for diverse payloads, MBARI engineers created a modular vehicle that can be quickly reconfigured to host a number of payloads without modifying basic components such as the propulsion, navigation, power, control, and emergency location systems.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute Staff prepare to tow a Autonomous Underwater Vehicle in the ocean to conduct tests
Tethys, which is a small 100 kilogram long-range autonomous underwater vehicle (LRAUV) designed to be deployed for up to six months to a depth of up to 300 meters.
© MBARI 2009

Autonomous underwater vehicles are robotic, untethered submersibles that are programmed at the surface, then navigate through the water on their own, collecting data as they go. The MBARI AUV can measure physical characteristics of the water, such as temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen, detect chlorophyll from microscopic marine algae, and measure concentrations of small particles in the water.

The actual and potential range of applications of AUVs for ocean science is large. As their range of deployable science instruments increase, and their operating costs decrease, AUVs are likely to become ubiquitous tools for ocean exploration and sampling. AUVs are an increasingly important tool for oceanographic research. They routinely and cost effectively sample the water column at depths far beyond what humans are capable of visiting.

Systems currently operational at MBARI include the upper-water-column vehicle, in routine operations since 2002; the seafloor mapping AUV, which accomplished its first deep mapping operations in 2006; the imaging AUV, and the long-range AUV. The core vehicle elements are deep-rated (the Mapping AUV is 6000 meters rated) and have been operated as long as 20 hours.

MBARI AUVs conduct a wide range of missions, both within the Monterey Bay area and far afield. MBARI’s first big test of its autonomous underwater vehicles involved sending the AUV under the Arctic ice in 2001. The upper-water-column vehicle is a critical tool for research of the upper ocean and harmful algal blooms. It has also been used to help gather data about the massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The mapping AUV has also been used locally to further map the details of Monterey Canyon, as well as being sent far afield to map such areas as the seafloor of mid-ocean ridges, submarine volcanoes, southern California methane mounds, and seamounts.

Last updated: Aug. 17, 2010