Scott Glenn ~ Ocean Observer



A Robot's Daring Mission

"There's nothing like a robot at sea to get you excited."

The Scarlet Knight track
Track of the Scarlet Knight
At a conference in Lithuania in 2006 Dr. Rick Spinrad – at the time responsible for running NOAA's research enterprise – gave Dr. Scott Glenn and colleagues a challenge: take one of their gliders, modify it and fly it across the Atlantic – and train students in the process. "It was workforce related," says Scott. "He thought it would inspire students. He told us to do it for the good of our country." The result was Atlantic Crossing, culminating in the first successful cross-Atlantic journey by an autonomous underwater vehicle.

The technical hurdles that had to be overcome were substantial: increase glider endurance by a factor of 10, modify the design, increase battery power, battle biofouling. After numerous shorter test flights, RU 17 departed from New Jersey – and was lost just short of the Azores. Further modifications complete, RU 27, the Scarlet Knight, was put in the ocean off the New Jersey coast on April 27, 2009 and successfully recovered off the coast of Spain on December 4, to be triumphantly brought into the town where the Pinta first returned with news of the new world.

RU COOL students were involved in every step along the way. "Atlantic Crossing was funded as an education program, not a research program," says Scott. Each student on the team was responsible for a specific aspect of the long-duration flight: construction and testing, flight characteristics, the HF radar network, path planning, website portal, blog and Google Earth interface. The purchase of the glider itself was funded by a group of Rutgers alumni who wanted to help engage students in ocean observatories.

Atlantic Crossing
"Having students involved was critical," says Scott. "To accomplish what we needed to do we had to have those extra hands." And for students it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "Gliders are a perfect tool for engaging undergraduates," says Scott. "They’re robots and they may not come back, making working with them very exciting." Students as young as freshmen got to help build and fly RU 27, and learn about collaboration. "They realize they have to work together as team," says Scott. "If they mess up the glider sinks." Students collaborated with their team at Rutgers and in Spain, and with teachers and other students around the globe. "They see the value of collaboration, that we can't just be individual scientists," says Scott. "They’re getting first-hand experience on how to use new technologies, how to collaborate scientifically, and how to be a better member of the global society."

This year Scott's students are working with the Cook glider, the next phase in Scott's plan to fly all the way around the world with a coordinated fleet of gliders. Cook is a thermal glider, funded by Office of Naval Research. The manufacturer, Teledyne Webb, gave Scott the keys, asking him to let his students take over and fly it. He estimates that Cook has a two-year lifespan. "We’ll just have class after class continue to fly Cook around the globe," says Scott. "We’ll start by crossing the Atlantic."