Underwater Robot Maps Antarctic Ice in 3D

© AUV team/Australian Antarctic Division

There has been no lack of underwater robots lately. They're proving the ability of autonomous underwater devices (AUVs) to run on solar power, they're monitoring harbors for pollution and they're working to repair damaged coral reefs. And now, they're allowing us to map Antarctic ice in 3D in order to see the total volume of ice in the area.

Australian researchers are using an AUV to map the underside of Antarctic ice while helicopters are doing 3D mapping from above. This project will allow researchers to go beyond the satellite measurements of ice cover and give a more detailed picture of the ice and how it is changing.

Project leader Guy Williams, from the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, said "In the past, we took drill-line measurements or observed ice thickness as we moved through [the ice] on a ship, but with the AUV, we can now use multi-beam sonar to measure an entire ice floe in unprecedented detail."

Discovery News reports that the robot swims in a "lawnmower" grid pattern about 65 feet below the ice. It scans the area with the multi-beam sonar and then stores the information in an onboard computer. When each survey is done, the data is converted into a 3-D map of that part of the ice.

This new data will go a long way in helping us to better understand how the ice is reacting to a changing climate.

"The thickness of sea ice is regarded amongst climate scientists as one of the crucial indicators of [climate] change," said researcher Jan Lieser in a statement. "When we know how the thickness of sea-ice cover is changing over time, we can estimate the influence of global climate change on the Antarctic environment."

Watch the video below to hear more about the project.

Tags: Antarctica | Maps | Oceans | Technology