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Wave Gliders represent sea change for scientific research

Slow-moving but highly useful at sea and strong enough to ride out a hurricane, Wave Gliders are multiplying off the Space Coast, proving especially useful monitoring at-sea missile launch tests and providing platforms for a variety of scientific research.

A recent notice to mariners was sent out for a Wave Glider, due back in the area July 15, that had been involved in a test for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. Wave Gliders are increasingly used in real-time monitoring for both at-sea launches and related downrange areas. The Department of Defense has successfully integrated wave gliders into the Demonstration and Shakedown Operations (DASO) (for at-sea submarine test launches) on both coasts, including from Port Canaveral.

Invented in 2007, wave gliders harvest all the energy they need to “swim” about two knots an hour using only the environment. The propulsion comes from the vertical motion of waves converted mechanically into forward propulsion through a series of wings on the submerged portion, located about 25 feet below the float. A small electric motor in the aft end of the submerged portion assists the Wave Glider if becalmed with no waves or needing more power for strong currents.

About the size of a stand-up paddle board, three solar panels feed lithium ion battery packs housed within the hull of the surface float. The float contains a small buoy that is ejected from the aft end of the float to ease recovery of the system.

Incorporated in December 2007, Liquid Robotics Inc. in 2016 was acquired by the Boeing Company.

“The beauty of harvesting energy from the environment is that it gives us an unparalleled and unique persistence at sea on mission,’’ said Don Jagoe, a retired Navy captain who has been with Liquid Robotics, headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif., for six years.

Jagoe shared an amazing example of the indestructible nature of Wave Gliders, two of which were twice caught by Hurricane Matthew while on a local DASO mission.

Hurricane Matthew ran over the Wave Gliders and they headed out. They survived, got through the strong currents of the Gulf Stream, went to the launch area, and did the mission as Hurricane Matthew headed back out to sea.

“They started swimming back home and it ran over them a second time. They survived it again and made it home through the mission so when I say they are robust and reliable, they really are. They’re kind of an unprecedented way to go to sea,” Jagoe said.

At present, the largest market for Wave Gliders is with the DOD, including range operations, anti-submarine warfare, reconnaissance, intelligence and surveillance, the kind of things where you want a persistent presence at sea but without the cost and overhead of manned personnel on a ship.

Also large in oil and gas exploration, and monitoring around oil rigs, there are about 50 Wave Gliders doing science experiments worldwide, he said.

As for the future: “As a company we have a strong vision of networks at sea, what we call the Digital Ocean; the ability to gather data in areas that it never has been gathered before. Two weeks at sea can seem like a long time. We’re able to go out and park it and be out there for six months. They can deploy themselves to station and swim themselves home.” And fleets of Wave Gliders could work in concert with satellites for detailed weather forecasts, he said.

No matter the use or location of the mission, Wave Gliders are not going to get there fast.

“If you think about it, two knots is still 50 miles a day. Because there is essentially no cost to the transportation, you’re trading time for distance. We don’t need to go as fast as typically you would want with a ship. For a very low cost we can cover a lot of ground if you have the extra time to spend getting there,’’ Jagoe said.

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