Swimming Penguins Guide Autonomous Underwater Robots

Autonomous robots that follow the routes of swimming penguins are collecting information that could help scientists understand why the birds’ populations are dropping rapidly.

The underwater robots, called gliders, are programmed to record ocean conditions as they follow the tracks of Adelie penguins swimming in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica.

The penguins have been dying off in large numbers for decades, and scientists suspect that warming of the seawater could be to blame. Part of the problem may be disappearing sea ice, which grows algae that attracts the krill the birds prefer to eat.

“They’re probably starving to death,” said Bill Fraser, a penguin biologist and president of the Polar Oceans Research Group.

Adelie penguins spend hours, and even days, on feeding trips. But once they dive below the surface, it’s hard to know what the birds are dealing with. So Fraser and oceanographers Alex Kahl and Oscar Schofield, both of Rutgers University, turned to robots to find out what ocean conditions are like when Adelie penguins are in the water.

“With the radio tags on the penguins, we could see where they foraged and how deep they were,” said Schofield. But with the addition of the gliders, “for the first time, now we know why they’re there,” he said.

The next step is to eliminate the middleman.

“My goal in five years is to have an automated network where you have penguins foraging, and my gliders are adjusting their tracks automatically,” said Schofield.

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