"We could see this swarm of robots be pushed by currents, getting pushed together and then get pushed apart," Jaffe said. "It's almost like a breathing motion, but it occurred over several hours."
The theory was based on ocean physics, water density and internal wave dynamics, but the scientists had never seen the real-time movement of ocean water in three dimensions, Jaffe said.
And although their initial deployments were focused on the 3-D mapping of internal wave dynamics, Jaffe said there are many other applications for the robot swarms.
For instance, with slightly different instrumentation, the robots could be deployed in an oil spill to help track the harmful toxins released. With underwater microphones, the swarm could also act as a giant ear, listening to whales and dolphins.
"We're not yet churning them out like a manufacturing facility, but we think we can answer a lot of questions about global ocean dynamics with what we have," Jaffe said of the couple of dozen robots the scientists have now. "And we are planning on a next generation, which hopefully would have more functionality and would maybe be even less expensive."
Details of the robot swarm were published online in the journal Nature Communications.
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