Slocum Glider operated by Rutgers via NOAA
At this point, the words “government drone program” is enough for people to reach for their guns, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s autonomous robotic vehicles don’t want to kill anything or violate anyone’s anythings. They don't even any weapons or cameras. The only thing they’re trying to observe is weather in the ocean.
Likely to avoid any unseemly associations, NOAA isn’t using the word drones, and instead call its unmanned, underwater vehicles “gliders,” which doesn’t make a ton of sense (since that word already means something else), but at least it doesn’t evoke any extrajudicial killings.
Gliders are used to monitor water currents, temperature, and conditions as part of the Integrated Ocean Observing System or IOOS. The underwater gliders can travel thousands of miles and continuously collect and send back ocean data, for several months at a time. They can even travel in parabolic dives to collect three-dimensional ocean observations, giving observations of the ocean from top to bottom, and sending the information off to satellites and data-collecting buoys.
Just like their unmanned counterparts making their way in outer space, gliders are feats of engineering, designed to work without human intervention, and with a ton of energy efficiency. The first of these underwater robots to cross the Atlantic Ocean was called "the Scarlet Knight," and it did so using just the equivalent energy of about four Christmas tree lights.
As part of a collaborative mission between Rutgers University and NOAA, a fresh fleet of gliders is being released off North America’s east coast. According to a NOAA press release, “the gliders will be available through the peak fall Atlantic storm season to collect data on ocean conditions, which will help improve scientists’ understanding of hurricanes and pave the way for future improvements in hurricane intensity forecasts.”
They’ll collect data and send it through NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center to the National Weather Service, the US Navy and eventually to a website where the public can check out what the gliders are finding. The gliders will also collect acoustical data on fish and mammal migrations that they happen across.
The glider program is mapped on this website, where a lot of the data they collect can also be viewed. As of this piece's publication, there are a couple of gliders off Massachusetts, several in the Gulf of Mexico and a few off the coast of southern California and one inching its way over from South Africa.
Maybe other government drone programs can learn from the gliders—find a goal, like learning more about hurricanes, that everyone can get behind, and keep from firing on civilians. A model program indeed.