These Tiny Boats Will Change How We Understand The Ocean

The miniature ships built by Liquid Robotics are powered by the sun and the very waves they ride on. They’re going on a trans-Pacific voyage to explore parts of the ocean never before seen, and sending data back the whole time.

At first glance, these ocean robots don’t look like much more than toy boats outfitted with solar panels. But the modest appearance of Liquid Robotics‘ Wave Glider ocean bots belies their ambition of traversing the Pacific Ocean and breaking the record for the longest distance ever traveled by an unmanned ocean vehicle. The bots aren’t making a frivolous expedition; they will collect and transmit huge amounts of data that could change our understanding of the ocean.


The Wave Glider robot, the first marine robot to use wave energy to propel itself forward (with wings attached 22 feet below the ocean’s surface), has been used by organizations like NOAA, BP, and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography to monitor everything from pollution to ocean salinity levels. The robot’s solar-powered sensors transmit information via satellite.

Last week, four Wave Glider robots set off from San Francisco on a 33,000 mile, 300-plus day trip across the Pacific, where they are expected to collect 2.25 million discrete data points with sensors that measure salinity, water temperature, weather, waves, dissolved oxygen, and fluorescence. The four robots will travel together to Hawaii before splitting off. Two will go to Japan and the other pair will head off to Australia.

It’s hard to say what kind of information the trip will yield. Currently, less than 10% of the ocean is mapped out. “We have monitoring stations everywhere on the ground, but we don’t have such things in the ocean,” explained Edward Lu, Liquid Robotics’ chief of innovative applications, in a recent interview with Co.Exist.

Whatever happens, we’ll all know about it. Every piece of data gathered by the robots will be made available in real-time (and for free) to anyone who registers. Scientists are also encouraged to sign up for the PacX Challenge, which asks entrants to submit a research abstract explaining what they want to do with the Wave Glider data sets. The scientist “who best represents the spirit of exploration and discovery embodied by this journey” will win six months of free Wave Glider data services–meaning they can use the Wave Glider to collect whatever data they see fit.

Combined with Virgin Oceanic‘s mission to travel to the deepest point of each of the planet’s oceans, there’s no telling what we might learn.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.