NASA scientists are developing artificial intelligence for underwater drones that could be used to understand Earths marine environments as well as track signs of life below the surface of icy oceans believed to exist on Jupiter's moon Europa.
While satellites can study the ocean surface, their signals cannot penetrate the water and therefore robotic submersibles have become critical tools for ocean research.
"Autonomous drones are important for ocean research, but today's drones don't make decisions on the fly," said Steve Chien, who leads the Artificial Intelligence Group at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
"In order to study unpredictable ocean phenomena, we need to develop submersibles that can navigate and make decisions on their own, and in real-time. Doing so would help us understand our own oceans -- and maybe those on other planets," Chien said in a NASA statement.
If confirmed, the oceans on moons like Europa are thought to be some of the most likely places to host life in the outer solar system.
If successful, this project could lead to submersibles that can plot their own course as they go, based on what they detect in the water around them.
That could change how scientists collect data, while also developing the kind of autonomy needed for planetary exploration, said Andrew Thompson, Assistant Professor at California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
"Our goal is to remove the human effort from the day-to-day piloting of these robots and focus that time on analysing the data collected," Thompson said.
"We want to give these submersibles the freedom and ability to collect useful information without putting a hand in to correct them," Thompson noted.
As part of this research, a team of scientists from NASA and other institutions recently used a fleet of six coordinated drones to study Monterey Bay, California.
The fleet roved for miles seeking out changes in temperature and salinity. To plot their routes, forecasts of these ocean features were sent to the drones from shore.
The drones also sensed how the ocean actively changed around them.
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