It was a storm that would terrify the bravest of mariners, but a California robot swam through it without blinking.
The Wave Glider robot has weathered a direct onslaught by Typhoon Rammasun, battling 9-meter waves and gusts up to 216 kilometers per hour while gathering data on sea surface conditions, maker Liquid Robotics.
The surface robot, which slowly bobs through ocean waves at about walking speed, was remotely piloted through the storm on the South China Sea. The robot has a propulsion system that uses the motion of waves to move it forward.
Rammasun, the strongest typhoon to batter the region in decades, has left over 150 people dead in the Philippines, Vietnam and China, as well as hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in damage. Typhoons, hurricanes and cyclones refer to the same kind of ocean storm depending on its location in the Pacific, Atlantic or Indian oceans.
"To our knowledge, this is the most powerful storm that a Wave Glider or any other sea robotic system has weathered successfully at the sea surface," Graham Hine, senior vice president at Sunnyvale-based Liquid Robotics, said in an interview.
"Interestingly, the telemetry shows no degradation of the system, so all of the sensing systems and vehicle performance seem to be nominal."
The robot in question will be recovered in about a week and was deployed for a corporate customer of Liquid Robotics, which has over 250 Wave Gliders deployed around the world.
Wave Gliders have sensors to measure oceanographic conditions such as the speed and direction of winds and currents, temperature, wave action and barometric pressure. They also have satellite, cellular and even Wi-Fi communications capabilities for data transmission.
The machines can swim the seas and collect data for months on end. Some have been recovered with embedded shark teeth, jellyfish tentacles and other evidence of encounters with marine life.
In 2012, an autonomously navigating Wave Glider launched in San Francisco reached Australia after a record-setting 16,600-km trek across the Pacific Ocean, demonstrating the technology could survive the high seas.
Liquid Robotics believes that the information gathered by the other robot's passage through Rammasun will complement predictions of how and when typhoons and hurricanes make landfall.
"The hope is that by getting more measurements at the sea surface and really understanding how the energy is transferred from the sea water to the air and vice versa is pretty critical to being able to predict the intensity of the hurricane when it hits shore," Hine said.