Navy Funds A Small Robot Army To Study The Arctic The U.S. Navy has completed the largest robotic survey of the Arctic ever attempted. Warming waters are absorbing more sunlight and melting more ice there each summer, the gizmos and gliders suggest.
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Navy Funds A Small Robot Army To Study The Arctic

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Navy Funds A Small Robot Army To Study The Arctic

Navy Funds A Small Robot Army To Study The Arctic

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INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, HOST:

The U.S. Navy's research office has some new technology that could make James Bond's famous gadget-maker jealous - an electromagnetic gun, drones that can swarm an enemy ship?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: U.S. Navy autonomous swarm boats - the future is now.

LAKSHMANAN: It's not all futuristic warfare, though. Poking around a conference where the devices were on display, NPR's Geoff Brumfiel found some odd-looking technology with a very different purpose.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: In the little side room away from the main expo hall, I found a bright yellow torpedo-y thing with wings.

MARTIN JEFFRIES: Looks like a banana - straightened-out banana to me, but that's maybe just the way my mind works.

BRUMFIEL: Martin Jeffries is looking at it with me. It's actually a robot that glides beneath the waves surfing on ocean currents. Jeffries is at the Office of Naval Research which is paid to develop this seaglider, as it's called. Last year, the Navy sponsored a massive study that used several seagliders together with buoys and other probes to look at a big patch of Arctic ice. The sensors tracked the ice over the summer as it broke apart and melted.

JEFFRIES: It was the largest experiment of its kind, namely an experiment that relied to a great extent on robotic technologies and autonomous observing. Nothing like it had ever been done in the Arctic Ocean.

BRUMFIEL: This kind of big scientific study is something new for the Navy. For decades, it's run its submarines underneath the Arctic ice. But it didn't really care what was happening on the surface.

JEFFRIES: The Arctic essentially has been a closed ocean because of the ice cover which did not retreat so much in the summer.

BRUMFIEL: But climate change is causing the Arctic Ocean to thaw. In the summer of 2007, a lot of ice covering the ocean melted. And in 2012, even more ice disappeared.

JEFFRIES: Now we've got all this open water. And it's easier to get into and out of and to cross the Arctic basin. And the projections are it will become even easier.

BRUMFIEL: And that means the Navy has to be there. New shipping routes are opening. The Navy must protect U.S. territorial waters and help out commercial vessels if they run into trouble. It's paying researchers to develop gliders and other gizmos because it needs to figure out how quickly the thaw is coming because right now the Navy isn't ready.

COMMANDER BLAKE MCBRIDE: The only time we currently operate U.S. Navy warships in the Arctic is along the coast of Norway up to Russia.

BRUMFIEL: That's Commander Blake McBride who helped write the Navy's new Arctic strategy. Those trips along the Norwegian coast are rare. Most ships haven't operated in the frigid Arctic environment.

MCBRIDE: Even if it's ice-free, there will be times and places where the temperatures are extremely low. And things break in ways that you wouldn't necessarily expect.

BRUMFIEL: So the Navy needs to test its gear. It's also looking at new stuff like ice-phobic coatings for its boats so they don't get bogged down by freezing water and sea spray. Right now the Navy thinks it will have to be ready to operate in the Arctic starting in 2030. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington.

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