NOAA: New Autonomous Underwater Vehicles Could Be Useful In Identifying Potential Water Quality Issues

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) announced on Dec. 20, 2006, a new generation of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) was successfully tested in the Newport River, N.C., estuary. The vehicles, navigating via Global Positioning System and pre-programmed guidance, collected critical environmental data including oxygen, salinity, temperature, chlorophyll, acidity, sediment and water depth.

"Operating in a group array, AUVs can be programmed to communicate with one another and can work to determine algal bloom intensity and the size," said Patricia Tester, an NCCOS oceanographer. "Additionally, AUVs can be used to assist reservoir managers to quickly and accurately identify potential water quality issues, aid fish farmers by monitoring overall pond conditions and help coastal managers assess deep water ecology in a safe, cost effective manner."

The AUVs, which are 12 pounds and three feet long, are relatively small in comparison to their predecessors and can operate in almost any water depth. Communicating through a high-speed radio frequency, AUVs transmit position, status and sensor readings to shipboard computers. To achieve optimum data collection, the vehicle can be programmed to ascend and descend at any programmed range and frequency from the ocean floor at depths of 100 feet to the surface throughout its mission track.

Launchable from boats as small as 16 feet or even from larger AUVs, the torpedo-like vessels could prove most useful in detecting early warning signs of harmful algal blooms in estuaries. Algal blooms can produce toxic or harmful effects in people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds; adversely affecting the "health" of local and regional economies.

"Data of this complexity and range, with real-time results, has been difficult to obtain in short periods of time," said Brian Julius, acting deputy director of NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration. "The micro-AUVs, developed by Nekton Research LLC can each cover nearly seven acres in less than four hours, providing a cost-effective means to quickly retrieve data and determine threats to estuary ecology."

"As we pursue answers to complex coastal resource issues such as harmful algal blooms, the development by our partners of innovative technology is critical to meeting that challenge," says John H. Dunnigan, director of NOAA's National Ocean Service. "AUV technology is one tool that is an increasingly important part of our efforts to gather information in a cost-effective and integrated manner to assist coastal managers."

Estuaries -- where the rivers meet the seas -- are some of the most productive ecosystems in the world harboring unique plant and animal communities. Since estuaries have a mixture of fresh water and salty seawater many animal species rely on them for food and places to nest and breed. Human communities also rely on estuaries for food, recreation and jobs.

For more information, contact the National Ocean Service at

Featured Webinar