Surfing the globe


POSTED: Sunday, March 28, 2010

A solar-powered, ocean-going device that looks like a Boogie board is being developed in Hawaii and California that could replace deep ocean buoys and warn about approaching tsunamis.

The device, called a Wave Glider, has withstood high seas and hurricane winds and has traveled more than 6,200 nautical miles across the Pacific.

Controlled through a satellite hook-up by a computer on the Big Island, the glider has traveled from Hawaii to San Diego, and from Monterey, Calif., to Alaska.

Initially invented to assist whale monitoring, Liquid Robotics, a California company with research facilities on the Big Island, is looking into whether the glider can be positioned in the ocean like a buoy and add to the tsunami warning network.

The glider can carry scientific equipment to any spot in the ocean and is solar-powered, so it is self-sustaining.

“;We have a bad analogy we use,”; said Justin Manley, Liquid Robotics director of science and commercial business. “;It's kind of like a pickup truck. What you put in the back of the pickup truck, it really depends on what your job is.”;

Manley said the glider also might have uses in other ocean research such as measuring global warming, ocean acidification and monitoring coral reefs.

The idea for the device came several years ago when the Big Island's Jupiter Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was using buoys equipped with hydrophones to record the sounds of humpback whales.

“;What they discovered was that the ocean was unkind to their buoys,”; Manley said. The motion of the waves would batter the buoys, he added. “;They needed a buoy that could stay in place without an anchor.”;

The foundation started a joint venture with robotics specialists from Silicon Valley, with little knowledge of marine science, to get an “;outsider”; perspective to solve the problem.

Encouraged by prototype designs, the researchers, spearheaded by Roger Hine, formed Liquid Robotics in 2007 to develop the Wave Glider.

The glider uses the wave action of the ocean for movement. As a wave passes by, a submerged attached glider acts as a tug pulling the surface float along a course. It can maintain an average speed of 1.5 knots in seas with 1- to 3-foot waves.

“;It takes wave energy, the vertical motion of a wave, and converts it into a forward motion,”; Manley said. “;It works like an airplane, which moves very fast. Lift is created under the wings and it moves up.”;

The device can be controlled from shore through computer and satellite networks. Operators can control the device from any Internet-enabled computer or even a cell phone. Because it sustains its own power through waves and solar energy, there are no fuel costs.

“;Propulsion is usually the biggest part of the energy budget,”; Manley said.

The Glider weathered high seas and winds when tested during Hurricane Flossie in August 2007. A greater challenge would be calm seas, because of a lack of wave energy, Manley said, but the device still can maintain a forward speed of up to 0.5 knots.

The company has 1-square-mile test range off Puako on the Big Island, where it conducts engineering trials.

“;We're very excited with the Hawaii presence,”; Manley said. “;Obviously, this work matters to Hawaii.”;