Europe’s only deep sea glider, developed by France-based Alseamar, is being upgraded to enable it to dive 5km in some of the world’s deepest oceans to carry out environmental impact checks from oil and gas drilling.

The underwater drone, SEAEXPLORER, is fitted with small fins and can stay out for months, giving researchers an alternative to costly ship-based diving expeditions. It uses an oil-filled bladder to adjust buoyancy and moves its battery pack forward and back to control whether the glider is pointing up or down, as reported by Horizon Magazine.

“The oil and gas industry, like sea mining, they’re quite interested in quantifying the environmental impact of certain activities. These gliders will allows up to do that,” said Dr Mario Brito from the UK’s University of Southampton, who is working as part of the EU-funded Bringing together Research and Industry for the Development of Glider Environmental Services (BRIDGES) project to improve the glider.

Underwater gliders can already reach depths of 1,000m, the edge of the so-called ‘midnight zone’ which is in permanent darkness, and stay at sea for months. New sensors are now being developed under the BRIDGES project to enable it to dive deeper, which Alseamar says will also help it compete in a fast-growing market.

“A typical mission is where you give a glider a number of waypoints – points it must reach – and then you change to other ones as you discover something interesting from the measurements you get from the glider in real time on your desktop,” explained Professor Laurent Mortier, ENSTA ParisTech in Palaiseau, France, who coordinates the BRIDGES project.

The BRIDGES team is also working to make gliders commercially available for small- and medium-sized companies which have ideas that require ocean exploration but who might not be able to afford ship time or other expensive data collection methods.

One way they’re doing this is by placing a propeller on the new glider to ensure it can hover in one position and take measurements, for example, close to the bottom. Gliders haven’t done this to date, meaning researchers had to use more expensive equipment to take these kinds of measurements.

By Rachael Doyle