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CSULB and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students test an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle that can track marine life.
CSULB and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students test an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle that can track marine life.

Marine Biologists Collaborating on Underwater Robots

Tracking where fish and sharks travel as well as understanding the waters in which they move is becoming easier with the help of innovative ocean-going robotic devices called Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) that hold promise for a variety of marine research.

CSULB marine biologist Christopher Lowe is collaborating with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo computer scientist Christopher Clark and marine biologist Mark Moline to further develop Clark’s AUV capabilities, funded by a three-year, $490,000 National Science Foundation grant. Lowe is director of CSULB’s Shark Lab and Clark directs Cal Poly’s Lab for Autonomous and Intelligent Robotics.

Marine biologists have attached electronic tracking devices to animals for years, but they generally need to follow the animals around in boats to listen for signals. AUVs look like small torpedoes and could make this task much easier, Lowe explained.

The team spent a week in August testing an AUV in Southern California waters. “It was interesting to see how they thought tracking works and it was interesting for us to understand how they go about the approach of, ‘How do you get this robot to basically do the same things that I go about training a student to do when I’m teaching them how to track?’” Lowe said.

They later tagged and tracked a leopard shark as an initial test for future studies. Moreover, the AUVs are equipped with a variety of oceanographic sensors that can measure water temperature, depth and other factors, and has sonar that can map the seafloor.

“The three of us working together provides a really powerful team to not just develop the technology, but one of the things that we see in the future is using these AUVs to look at the effectiveness of marine protected areas, for example,” Lowe remarked.