Fun meter: Interesting
Location: Gran Canaria
Time: 1 hour 30 min
Level of difficulty: Medium
Good for what ages: 10+
Cost: One sponsor. This is a research facility.
If you like robots, this article is for you. Sojourn was sooo excited to see robot fishies. I kept telling him there is no such thing as robot fish, but go figure. We were both kind of right. Sadly, the Plocan research center is not open to visitors for now. Which is a pretty serious bummer as I bet a lot of my friends would like it. You would too. Maybe when COVID passes? I love learning about the amazing research and businesses that are making this world a better place. And today, I’m going to give you a tour of the drones Plocan uses to observe the ocean.
PLOCAN has a mission to measure and understand how humans affect the ocean.
They want to give governments and companies good information so that they understand what is really happening and make smart decisions. I definitely want people to care for the environment. After all, I live here too!
PLOCAN is a research center that makes tools to measure the ocean. Most people know them for the big platform and ocean windmill off the east coast of Gran Canaria. But today we are visiting their drones and gliders. Like cool robot torpedoes that cross the sea, or surfboards that wiggle from island to island all by themselves. They cover these robots with all kinds of measurement tools, which talk to their computers through satellites. And then set them free to explore the ocean to track and learn all by themselves. Be free, tiny robot boat, be free!!! See you in a few months. What a cool world we live in.
There are a lot of ways we can make the world healthier. Plant more trees to make more air. Recycle our trash so we don’t put it in the ocean and hurt the turtles. And burn less things so we don’t put smoke in the air. That is why green energy, where we create electricity in ways that don’t hurt the environment, is so important.
Scientists have figured out how to turn wind and waves into electricity. Awesome!!! My iPad is wave powered! They have made many windmills and wave motion generators in the Canary Islands that make power without creating pollution. OR DO THEY?!? These might not create smoke like coal power, but they do have effects on the environment around them. And the only way to know what they are is to measure it. We need safe and clean energy and Plocan is on the job.
Why Measure Sound?
Why do we measure sound? Animals like sperm whales use sounds to find their way around the ocean. They make powerful clicks that travel through the water for 100s of kilometers, and bounce back when the sound hits something. Oh, giant squid!! yuuuumy. It’s called echolocation, and lots of animals see the world through sounds, like bats and shrews and even people! Many blind people have learned to use echolocation, which is pretty incredible. That means you could too if you put in the time.
So why is too much noise bad? If the whales can’t hear because of a human noise, they can’t “see” or talk to their buddies. If you stare at the sun, it will make you blind. Too much light is bad for your eyes. Too much sounds is bad for whales. Plocan’s scientists measure the sound so that they can figure out how much noise a machine can make before it hurts animals.
Safe, clean, green power through ocean windmills and wave converters might not make a lot of smoke, but what if they make lots of noise? Oh no… poor whales. So how much is too much noise? And how do you measure the noise made by a box at the bottom of the ocean?
How to Measure Sounds
Plocan operates small robot submarines and boats that can cross the ocean all by itself. To measure sound and noise, they attach a “hydrophone”. Which is a water microphone. Dad explained that hydro means water. The hydrophones I held are different sizes, from a small pen to a giant tool they have to drag behind a boat or autonomous vehicle.
The hydrophone picks up all kinds of sound, but what they want to measure is noise. Those sound the same, so what is the difference? Sounds are everything you hear, and noises are bad sounds that annoy the animals. Easy to remember because noise and annoy kinda rhyme.
It’s hard to measure noise, because most drones make noise when they move. Propellers are loud. They can make it hard for the hydrophones to measure the noises around the ocean. But they can fix it in different ways. Some robots listen for special sounds and then stop and get super silent when they record. Other robots have special computer programs that remove the noises they don’t want. If that sounds complicated. I don’t totally understand how it works, so let’s agree it is techno magic. Go engineers go.
Meet the Robot Family
Plocan designs all kinds of robot drones to measure the ocean. Deep water explorers, tiny sailboats, floating buoys, wave powered rowing drones. They even have a glider school where they train and teach students how to pilot them. Sounds really fun, but sadly it’s only for adults.
We got to spend some time with Carlos Barrera the head engineer, and Eric Delory the head researcher, in the lab looking and touching all the cool robots.The drones come in every shape and size!!!
When designing robots for long distance ocean trips, they think a lot about power and batteries. They need all the electricity for the sensors to measure things. So they look for cool ways to make the robots use nature’s power like wind, waves and gravity to make the drones move. I’ll describe the different ways in each section. My dad keeps saying how clever they are. He is super impressed!
They measure all kinds of things, not just sound. Sometimes they measure if there is poison in the water. In the future, they could use Plocan’s drones at the aquaculture projects I wrote about in the “Abalone and fish farm”. I asked mom to list other things they measure today or are working on figuring out, so here they are: heavy metals, hydrocarbons, micro plastics, chlorophyll, salinity, oxygen, sound, nutrients, light, ph level and soooooo much more. Don’t know what those are? Me neither. But it is basically food, trash, light and other things we need for plants and animals and people to be happy.
Most of the devices we saw are not finished yet or were being fixed up. They are working on them and called them prototypes. A prototype is an experiment and there is only one. Every single robot is special and unique.
A prototype drone usually works for 2-3 years until they break or get lost. The oldest one in the lab is 10 years old and isn’t dead yet. It’s almost as old as I am!!! They are a bit like cars in that way. You have to take care of them or they fall apart.
Scientist have lost gliders in the past. Maybe they had a leak or hit a ship. Or were eaten by a sea monster. Who knows, they just disappeared, pooof. A glider recently showed up on a beach in Ireland!! They put stickers all over them now so if they get lost, someone can call them and help get it home. Have you seen my drone?!?
I found a cool video on youtube that shows how the drones work under water. Check it out.
The Deep Sea Gliders
The “robot fishes” that Sojourn was so excited about are underwater gliders. They travel from the top of the ocean down to the deep dark and back up without any effort. Crazy right!!! The glider we saw can go as deep as 1000m. There isn’t much light at 200m deep and by 1000m is totally dark. That is deep. I hope it doesn’t get scared.
The gliders are pretty slow. Gliding makes it sound like flying, but it is more like falling. These are like the tortoise of drones. They travel about 1km per hour compared to a dolphin that can swim as fast as 60km per hour. Carlos said that are about 700 gliders cruising the ocean world wide.
And the way they do it is so smart. The drone uses gravity to glide “down-hill” through the water. It has weights on its nose and little wings that help it fall forward. And when it is super deep and ready to come up, it fills an bladder in its nose. That makes the glider slowly rise “up-hill”. This way it can cross whole oceans just using gravity.
The gliders are actually full of tools such as sensors and have a battery. There is a big antenna to communicate with the satellite. You can control the glider from any computer or phone with the internet. They have two types of batteries, one that lasts 4-5 weeks and an expensive one
Sail Powered Drone
The sail powered drone looks like a tiny sailboat. It is the size of my boogie board. It wanders along the surface like a normal sailboat and goes out for months at a time.
It sails between 1 – 2.5 knots depending on the wind. A knot is not something you tie. It is short for a nautical mile. People measure how fast something travels on water using knots. If a normal human could walk on water, we would do about 8 knots per hour. We are way faster than these sail powered drones. But they don’t get tired like we do and don’t need fuel, so they can go super far. One sail crossed from Azores islands to the Canaries recently. Cool right? I was worried about storms, but Eric showed me how it can correct itself if it flips over, using a big heavy weight at the bottom called a keel to keep it stable.
It uses wind to move but has solar panels. They are used to power the sensors. It was my first time touching solar panels and they feel like crocodile skin. I was super surprised. How long can it go out before it breaks? They actually don’t know because the sail is way tougher than the sensors. Once the sensor breaks, they pick it up and take it home for repairs.
Have you been on a sail boat?
Wave Power Drone
This drone crawls its way across the ocean using wave power to move. Waves make the underwater fins attach to the drone move forward, pulling the boat. It can go really fast and is super steady. The paddle arms and the board on the surface are separated and connected by big rubber bands. They are separated by a minimum of 4 meters and a max of 22 meters. This drone is sooo weird looking. It was originally designed in Hawaii to watch marine mammals like whales and dolphins. It started with a surfboard and then they improved this cool robot you are looking at today.
Measuring things is really important. If I can’t measure it, I can’t make it better. I want our wonderful island to always be this awesome. Dad says it is our responsibility to make our home a safe, vibrant and healthy place. To make good decisions and consider how we get our food, support sick people, nurture the land, build thoughtfully. And that starts by understanding what is happening.
PLOCAN is a hero of the ocean. They give the ocean a voice, and help us understand what it is saying. It is up to you and I to listen. It is very impressive that there are over 700 drones in the ocean measuring and learning. I hope one day, I will be able to try to control one of the drones.
This is a science writing article sponsored by Ocean Best Practices Newsletter. It is pretty cool as a kid to get paid to learn and tell stories. I’m so grateful to my sponsors. Thank you for helping me show how amazing the Canary Islands are!