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Thursday, August 23, 2012
Wave Glider robot tracks sharks

By Madison Kahn
ESPN.com

The six-foot Wave Glider floats on the surface of the ocean and follows tagged sharks. Acting as a WiFi hub, it sends live information about the sharks to the Web.

If you've ever wondered what exactly the sharks are doing beneath the ocean's waves as you surf, here's your chance to find out.

A team of Stanford University marine biologists, led by Professor Barbara Block, have developed a self-propelled Wave Glider robot that will be cruising the Northern California coast this summer and fall, listening for and collecting data on great white sharks. This data, however, is not just for scientists. A free iPhone and iPad app called Shark Net receives information from the robot and displays it for the public via maps, photos, video, and other media.

The Wave Glider is Block's first step in her goal to "wire" the sea.

"We hope to bring the ocean to life for the public, so that people can start to appreciate how rich of a resource the Blue Serengeti really is," Block said to ESPN.com.

Powered by wave energy and solar panels, the six-foot yellow robot, made by Liquid Robotics, picks up signals from acoustic tags on sharks passing within 1,000 feet and sends the data to a satellite. From there, the data is transmitted directly to the app, allowing people to view the location of the sharks in real time. So far, the app covers 15 white sharks, though up to 120 have been tagged by Block's team over the past 25 years of research. In the future, Block hopes to expand both the number of sharks and the type, to include salmon and mako sharks as well.

Each white shark in the app is listed under a different name, one of which is Great White Tom Johnson. Customizable maps with marine charts show where Tom Johnson has been, what landforms he's passed, and where he's headed at the moment. The app also includes interactive 3D models of each individual shark, along with a biography and sighting history. If you double tap the 3D image of Tom Johnson, you can even watch him take a bite.

A free iPhone and iPad app called Shark Net receives real-time information from the robot and allows the public to track the sharks along with the researchers.

"It allows people to interact with sharks and understand them like we do," said Chapple, a Post-Doctoral Researcher who's been working with Block for seven years. "The public doesn't need to be afraid to get in the water -- they just need to be amazed by the animals in the water."

The Wave Glider will travel between Northern California's Tomales Point and Monterey Bay over the next few months. In the fall, most Northern California white sharks stick closer to the coast, so the Wave Glider will follow suit. Eventually Dr. Block plans to extend the observation network down the entire west coast of North America.

"What we're doing is taking a transparent ocean and clarifying what's happening for all the people out there that can't see it," said Block. "This technology will help us observe the oceans, census the populations, improve fisheries, and understand climate variability so that we can protect these great predators."

Surfers: don't take this app for granted. Though it can determine if one of Block's sharks are in the area, it cannot definitively rule out that no sharks are there. The robot only picks up signals from tagged sharks within 1,000 feet, and Block readily admits that she has not tagged every shark in the ocean. While there is future potential to monitor sharks in surf areas using similar technology, it's better to use the app now to understand with whom you're swimming in that big blue playground.