MBARI’s Seafloor Robot Breaks World Record

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s (MBARI) Benthic Rover, an autonomous seafloor crawler, recently broke the world record for longest distance traveled and duration sustained by a seafloor crawler. 

The Benthic Rover, an untethered, entirely autonomous seafloor crawler, has been collecting  scientific data on the seafloor for an entire year.

The Rover operates at Station M—an area of flat, muddy, abyssal seafloor 4,000 m deep and approximately 220 km from the California coast.

MBARI marine ecologist Ken Smith and his colleagues have been studying Station M since 1989. Some of their instruments measure sinking particulate organic carbon (POC) in the form of marine snow—bits of phytoplankton and zooplankton detritus, as well as fecal matter—that drifts down to the seafloor. Organisms in this abyssal realm rely upon marine snow as their primary source of food. The Benthic Rover records how much of the marine snow is consumed by the seafloor community.

One of the most significant findings from the last few years of the Rover’s deployments involved several large pulses of marine snow that rapidly sank to the seafloor.

The Rover detected several brief, two- to four-week events when nearly an entire year’s worth of chlorophyll-rich detritus landed on the seafloor.

In documenting such events, the Rover helped solve an important piece of Earth’s carbon-cycle puzzle—showing that a much larger percentage of carbon than previously expected can sink rapidly from the surface into deeper water. These periodic events can now be factored into global climate change models, MBARI explained.

While in transit, the Rover takes overlapping images every meter with a high-resolution camera to document seafloor animals and detritus. It also carries a fluorescence-imaging system that detects the wavelength of light given off by chlorophyll from phytoplankton that sank from the surface waters.

In November 2016, the Rover was retrieved after its record run—operating for one year and two days, and traveling a distance of 1.6 kilometers. The Rover has been operating autonomously since 2009 and has been steadily increasing its duration of deployment and distance traveled before needing to be brought onboard a research vessel for maintenance.

The Rover is currently continuing its mission on the seafloor at Station M, while Smith and his fellow researchers are back on shore analyzing the data it collected over the past year.

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