Rutgers Students Glide into the Smithsonian

Rutgers students and researchers recently traced the ocean blue path Christopher Columbus made famous over 500-years ago with a noteworthy trip of their own making: the first ocean crossing by an underwater robotic vehicle.
Over the course of many months, Rutgers students and researchers from various departments worked together with the University’s International Coalition of Ocean Observing Laboratories (iCOOL) to design an 8-foot robotic glider named The Scarlet Knight, after the Rutgers mascot. Then, in early 2009, the Scarlet Knight was deployed off the coast of New Jersey, setting sail, sort of speak, for Baiona, Spain, the same city Columbus landed in hundreds of years ago.

Once submerged, the glider went on to spent 221 days at sea, collecting data on ocean circulation and temperatures along the way. With no propeller or engine, the Scarlet Knight rode the Atlantic Ocean currents by way of a clever manipulation of the glider’s buoyancy. Inside the glider, a battery powered pump distributed water to either the glider’s tail or nose, causing the glider to ascend or descend. Equally remarkable is how the glider’s pump was controlled: via piloting instructions sent from team members on the mainland and received by an Iridium telephone installed in the Glider’s tail. Every 8-hours, the Scarlet Knight rose to the surface to transmit its collected data and receive any updated instructions from students and researchers keeping tabs on the glider’s coordinates in relation to weather and water patterns.

Electrical and Computer EngineeringStudents and professors have put in many hours working on various key projects to further develop the technology needed to power and operate gliders much like the famous Scarlet Knight. In 2010, for example, Professor Uli Kremer and his students, from the University’s computer science department, worked with a team of ECE students to assist in the development of the power measurement infrastructure used in the gliders. Designing the infrastructure system from start to finish posed various challenges for the ECE team, said Ilya Chigirev, an ECE graduate student who served as a mentor for the ECE undergraduates involved with the project. However, Ilya and his team were well prepared to solve the problems raised by the project, thanks to their training at Rutgers. “It was a great example of being able to apply some of what we had learned in classes,” said Ilya.
Since it’s deployment, the Scarlet Knight and the technology used in its creation have been making waves around the world. Notably, the underwater wonder is currently the centerpiece of a temporary exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum, in Washington D.C. The Knight has garnered such attention, in part, because it’s a world first, but also because the glider technology is versatile in its real world problem solving applicability. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, off the Gulf Coast, gliders much like the Knight were used to effectively locate oil spill areas. Such disaster recovery assistance is simply one instance proving just how valuable the Scarlet Knight ocean-surveying technology can be.