Robot Splashdown Over the Palmer Deep

At about 1:00 p.m. today, Dr. Josh Kohut was in an inflatable boat over an underwater canyon called the Palmer Deep. The wind was light, there was a little rain, and groups of gentoo penguins were swimming by the boat to see what we were up to. We were there to deploy four gliders—or, as Dr. Kohut put it with mild amazement, “Here we are in Antarctica, sitting in a zodiac and getting ready to throw some robots in the water.”

The team’s gliders are indeed torpedo-shaped robots that will “fly” through the water measuring basic aspects such as salinity, currents, and photosynthetic activity. They’ll stay out for weeks at a time, and they’ll check in every few hours to report what they’ve found and listen for further instructions. The CONVERGE team is using them to gather data about what’s going on under the surface, much as they’re using radar to study the surface water and find convergence zones.

“We think convergence zones are concentrating the food web [phytoplankton and krill],” said Dr. Matt Oliver of the University of Delaware. “So these gliders are going to go fly through those zones and find out if that’s true.” In scientific terms, the effect of convergence zones is one of the team’s hypotheses, and the gliders provide them with a way to do what scientists do: test their hypotheses.

Gliders are delicate, heavy, complicated machines—see what it takes to safely launch a glider in the slideshow below:

A Zodiac in MidairGet Back in the Boat, OscarLook Before You LeapGlider Squad ReadyHeading Out to Station E Sliding Into ActionReady to FlyJust Don’t Bump Your HeadBon Voyage

glider positions, january 6All the time we were driving the zodiacs back to Palmer, the gliders were heading out along their programmed routes. By late evening, RU05 had split away from the others to follow its own route. The Alaska glider (AK03) and the University of Delaware’s Blue Hen were neck and neck, but Filipa Carvalho’s RU24 was out in front, owing to a slight difference in the way it was configured during testing.

The gliders will keep sending back data every few hours, and the CONVERGE team will get together each day to look at the results and decide on their next course of action. This almost instantaneous collection of data over such a wide area is something that has only become possible in the last 10 or 15 years. Check back over the next days and weeks to see how the team puts this potential to use.

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  1. Ms. Dunbar January 6, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

    Thank you for the amazing pictures and information! Now that we’re back from holiday break, we’re checking in every day ~ looking forward to seeing the data and hearing about all your adventures. Looks like Team Blue Hen has the largest following at the moment.

  2. Rachel January 7, 2015 at 1:05 pm #

    Have any animals, like penguins or seals, jumped on one of the rafts yet?

    • Hugh Powell January 7, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

      Hi Rachel – I haven’t seen any penguins or seals jump into a zodiac while I’ve been here so far. Apparently a chinstrap penguin did jump into a zodiac earlier in the year though, so you never know! Thanks – Hugh

  3. Maddie From Ranney January 7, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

    Hello!! Im looking forward to seeing what’s happening in Antarctica from your blog. I love penguins so this is a great experience for me. Have you seen any whales? Hope you get back to be!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. BLAKE January 7, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

    Hey! Like the pictures. So excited to find out more about Project Converge.

  5. JACK January 7, 2015 at 1:07 pm #

    Whoa! Thank you for posting these pictures they make me excited to be involved with Project Converge!
    Go Rutgers!!

  6. Rylan January 7, 2015 at 1:07 pm #

    How many people are currently at Palmer Station? Are there any other projects taking place there?

    • Hugh Powell January 7, 2015 at 5:03 pm #

      Hi Rylan – There are 44 people on station at Palmer right now. There are a few other projects, including a team studying whales in the area; another team studying the effects of ocean acidification (a byproduct of climate change) on krill; and another team that’s part of a long-term ecological research project that’s monitoring phytoplankton in the region. We will try to show you some of them during the next month in between our stories about Project CONVERGE. Thanks for your question – Hugh

  7. BLAKE January 7, 2015 at 1:07 pm #

    Hey! Like the pictures. So excited to be part of Project Converge!!

  8. Kenny January 7, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    How was the trip their? What did you guys do to pass the time?

    • Hugh Powell January 7, 2015 at 4:56 pm #

      Hi Kenny – We had one of the flattest, calmest, most comfortable crossings of the Drake Passage that anyone can remember. The section of ocean between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula has a reputation for being terribly rough, but our ship barely rocked at all during the two days of the crossing. People passed the time in different ways: some spent the time planning; others caught up on office work they needed to do; some people watched movies in the ship’s lounge or worked out. Some of us spent a lot of time on the deck watching the amazing show of albatrosses, petrels, and other seabirds that followed the ship. Read this post for more about what the crossing was like: Thanks! – Hugh

    • Kenny January 9, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

      Thanks for replying! Glad to hear you had a great trip!

  9. Ryan January 7, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    Have you encountered any problems in Antarctica? Was there anything there that you weren’t expecting?

    • Hugh Powell January 7, 2015 at 4:52 pm #

      Hi Ryan – Thankfully so far most things have gone according to plan. Dr. Kim Bernard’s team had trouble with an echosounder they were using to study krill, but they fixed that at the beginning of this week. The weather in Antarctica is ultimately in charge of what we do—when a storm blows in we can’t do much more than wait for it to clear. But since we arrived, we’ve had light winds and fairly calm seas, with just a little bit of rain and snow. So we’ve been able to keep our plans on schedule. Fingers crossed for the next few weeks! – Hugh

  10. Anisha from Ranney January 7, 2015 at 1:09 pm #

    Thanks for the cool pictures and interesting information about the gliders!

  11. Max Bonevento January 7, 2015 at 1:10 pm #

    I like your blog especially the penguin cam! I wanted to know if you encountered any animals yet other than penguins, such as seals, elephant seals, killer whales, polar bears, arctic foxes, arctic bunnies, Santa Clause, or any other neat species.

    • Hugh Powell January 7, 2015 at 4:46 pm #

      Hi Max, I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. We have seen about a dozen species of birds since we arrived at Palmer Station, plus many more while we were in Chile and in the Drake Passage. These include skuas, gulls, cormorants, terns, storm-petrels, giant-petrels, and a strange bird called a sheathbill. We’ve also seen Antarctic fur seals, elephant seals, and leopard seals. We hope to see crabeater seals as well. We’ve seen humpback and fin whales. We haven’t seen any polar bears or foxes or rabbits—those live in the Arctic which is on the opposite side of the world from us. Here in the Antarctic, there are no land mammals at all. Thanks for your question! – Hugh

  12. Laura Lehrfeld January 7, 2015 at 1:10 pm #

    Thank you for the great information.
    Are there other studies taking place at the time you are at Palmer Station? Also would the research you are doing differ if you were at Palmer Station during a different season?

    • Hugh Powell January 7, 2015 at 4:29 pm #

      Hi Laura – thanks for the question. Yes, there are other projects happening here. There’s a team studying whales in the area; another team studying the effects of ocean acidification (a byproduct of climate change) on krill; and another team that’s part of a long-term ecological research project that’s monitoring phytoplankton in the region. We will try to show you some of them during the next month in between our stories about Project CONVERGE. Thanks – Hugh

  13. Jack January 7, 2015 at 1:11 pm #

    Have there been any new discoveries since you arrived at Palmer Station?

    • Hugh Powell January 10, 2015 at 4:44 pm #

      Hi Jack, The science team has been collecting lots of data, and they’ll spend the next few years sorting through it, analyzing it, and figuring out what it means. However, there are always small discoveries made from day to day: the radar sites generate a map of the surface currents each day at a finer scale than has ever been done here before, and the gliders map conditions under the water. The krill team makes a similar high-resolution map of krill distribution each day; and the penguin team finds out where Adelie penguins are going to forage. Every couple of days, the scientists get together and look at their recent results to figure out what they mean. These small discoveries help them refine and adjust their study plan for the coming days. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  14. Brian Francisco January 7, 2015 at 2:53 pm #

    how often do you have problems WITH THE GLIDERS?

    • Hugh Powell January 13, 2015 at 11:13 am #

      Hi Brian – I asked this question to Dr. Josh Kohut, who has been flying gliders in the ocean for about 15 years. He said they have the system worked out pretty well at this point, and they have built-in safety measures (including extra batteries and an emergency weight the glider can jettison if it needs to come to the surface in a hurry). These keep most of the problems from becoming serious. “We do have problems, but they’re usually solvable,” Dr. Kohut said. “We have a team of really excellent glider pilots that do a phenomenal job of keeping our gliders going where we want them to go.” Most of the problems these days are environmental—getting the gliders to go where they need them to go, even when they have to fight a strong current. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  15. Danielle January 7, 2015 at 3:03 pm #

    Do marine life see the glider as a threat? Do they try to attack it?

    • Hugh Powell January 8, 2015 at 9:08 am #

      Hi Danielle – I asked Dr. Josh Kohut about this question. He said that the biggest problem the gliders have with marine life is not when they see it as a threat, it’s when they see it as something to latch onto. When a glider has been in the water for an extended period, barnacles and other small organisms can start to grow on it. This affects the overall weight of the glider and makes it harder to fly. In warmer waters such as the Gulf of Mexico, remoras can be a problem. These fish are often called “shark suckers”—they cling onto the sides of large fish and hitch a ride. The remoras do this sometimes with gliders, and they can actually sink the glider, leaving it no choice but to drop its emergency weight and rise to the surface again. Great question – thanks for sending it in! – Hugh

    • RICK LUDESCHER January 8, 2015 at 12:57 pm #

      If you want to learn more about gliders and how they function, watch our film Atlantic Crossing: A Robot’s Daring Mission on YouTube. The 57 min film documents the first crossing of an ocean basin by an autonomous underwater robot (aka glider) in 2009, managed by a team of undergraduates under the direction of scientists (including Josh) at the COOL room at Rutgers. You can stream Atlantic Crossing at – Rick

  16. RICK LUDESCHER January 7, 2015 at 11:06 pm #

    Finally earned that donut, Josh!

    • maria stoupakis January 12, 2015 at 12:40 pm #

      do you notice any changes in the penguins when the climate changes? if you do can you get back to me because it is for a report for science class 🙂

    • Hugh Powell January 13, 2015 at 10:24 am #

      Hi Maria – That’s a great question. Here on the Antarctic Peninsula, the climate is changing faster than anywhere else on Earth. But that’s still pretty slowly on the kind of time frame we’re used to. Over the last 30 years, as the climate has warmed, Adelie penguins around Palmer Station have lost about 90 percent of their numbers. Gentoo penguins, which normally live farther north, have moved into the region. In 1990 there were no gentoo penguins nesting anywhere near Palmer Station—but now there are 3,600 pairs breeding at the Biscoe Point colony alone. We’ll be talking about climate change more a little bit later in the month, so stay tuned! – Hugh

  17. ally January 12, 2015 at 12:47 pm #

    how many gliders have you sent out?

    • Hugh Powell January 13, 2015 at 9:25 am #

      Hi Ally, The team has sent out 5 gliders since they arrived here at Palmer Station. We’ll check in with them soon in a blog post. Thanks for asking! – Hugh

  18. Jennifer January 14, 2015 at 3:51 pm #

    What would happen if something interferes with the gliders path? -Jennifer

    • Hugh Powell January 15, 2015 at 9:25 am #

      Hi Jennifer – Funny you should ask, as we just had something get in the way of one of the gliders, causing it to take emergency measures to save itself. We wrote about it in the January 14 post, so read all about it at: Thanks for asking! – Hugh