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Image credit: Justin Fujii and Tim Silva/WHOI Creative

Sneaky deep sea robot will take pics of fish without spooking them

Mesobot can move quietly enough to avoid panicking sea life.

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Justin Fujii and Tim Silva/WHOI Creative

Robots typically aren't good choices for studying deep sea animals like jellyfish -- not when their light, noise and movement can scare away those creatures. Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution may have a far less intrusive option, though. Their planned Mesobot observer is designed to move as quietly as possible while collecting data about aquatic life. The four-foot-tall robot moves using six large but low-power thrusters that won't cause a stir, and its LED lights can switch to red (which many deep sea species can't see). A two-day running time should also minimize attention-getting trips to the surface.

It crucially won't need much human intervention. Mesobot uses stereo cameras to identify target animals and can follow them around on its own. A 12-megapixel camera can take both pictures and 4K video, while a particulate sampler could collect DNA traces floating in the water. It could also study water traits like salt levels and dissolved oxygen.

Woods Hole expects Mesobot to be ready for testing in early 2019 (that is, very shortly), and could embark on its first real dive in the summer. When it does, it could provide a new level of insight into sea life hundreds or thousands of feet below the waves. Human divers can be extremely stealthy, but they can't stay for very long -- Mesobot could hang around long enough to discover behavior that people would otherwise miss.

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