Robots Head to Antarctica

Back in 2010, Designfax posted a great headline: “Waterproof Servos are Here, Robot Fish Rejoice.”

Eight years later, robot fish may or may not be rejoicing, but they are heading to Antarctica to do something human beings cannot. They’re doing research on the sheet of ice keeping frigid antarctic waters in place. Their goal is to find out how close we are to a watery grave, globally speaking.

Antarctica has about 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of its fresh water locked up in the form of ice. The ice sheet, about 5.4 million square miles of ice, forms the polar ice cap in the Southern Hemisphere. Climate change is threatening this lock up, though. Warmer weather is creating underground caves full of water below the Antarctic ice sheet. Thin — or relatively thin — edges of the ice sheet now jut out over liquid water in some places.

People are beginning to wonder how likely those icy ledges are to break and release torrents of water.

And what will happen if they do break?

We’re not sure. If the polar ice caps melt, we can expect the sea level to rise more than 200 feet, putting all of Florida and most of the major cities in the U.S. underwater. But a little breach of the ice shelf? It’s hard to know how much that would affect the earth’s land masses.

Seagliders, fish-shaped robots designed for underwater work, are heading down to the South Pole to measure the ice sheet. The University of Washington is in charge, and the researchers hope that the Seagliders will be able to collect enough information to clarify some of the mysteries of physics that plague people trying to make predictions about the ice sheet and the water it floats on.

Scientists have seen for the past several decades that the flow of glaciers into the space below the shelves has sped up. Up till now, though, they’ve only been able to observe the process by drilling holes in the ice or sending submarines for brief visits. The Seagliders, in contrast, will swim around for several weeks below the ice shelf, gathering data.

It’s a thrilling story, but it’s also a familiar one. Robots head into areas unfit for humans on a regular basis. Whether that’s a washdown environment or a vacuum or a deep ocean space below the ice cap, automation makes it possible for human beings to carry out desired tasks in undesirable spaces.

The researchers will head out next year to pick up the Seagliders, hoping that by then they will have made their way safely out of the water.

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