Professor tracks sharks using underwater robotics

Three Cal State University professors led an experiment using underwater robotics to track tagged sharks more efficiently in marine-protected areas.

Christopher Lowe, a marine biology professor at Cal State Long Beach, has partnered with Christopher Clark, a computer science professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and Mark Moline, a marine biology professor and biological oceanographer, to test Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) in tracking sharks.

The professors were given a grant from the National Science Foundation Robust Intelligence program for the three-year, $490,000 project.

The team, along with students from both campuses and fields, spent a week on a boat in the Los Angeles Harbor in August.

They worked together to understand and integrate each other’s fields.

AUVs were first used in mapping seafloors. After an email exchange, Clark came up with the idea that they could work together in tracking sharks with AUVs. Clark then developed an AUV that was able to map seafloors and track tagged sharks at the same time.

According to Lowe, the collaboration of robotics and shark tracking was an idea that Donald Nelson, the founder of the Shark Lab at CSULB, had always mentioned.

For 25 years, Lowe has been tracking sharks by following them in a boat and listening for signals. Now, with Clark’s AUV, marine biologists will be able to sit on a boat while the robot sends them tracking information.

“Instead of boating for thousands of hours, we can get the information 24 hours later,” Lowe said.

The AUV measures different factors in the water, such as temperature, which allows marine biologists to see what kind of water sharks like to be in.

The different factors that the AUV measures show marine biologists the sharks’ behavioral patterns.

“The robot could track the shark more accurately than we could following in our boat,” Lowe said.

AUVs save time in collecting data, save money on mapping seafloors and are able to track sharks without disrupting their paths. Mapping seafloors is usually expensive, but it helps scientists understand the earth better by having a map of the ocean floor.

Tracking sharks in MPAs lets the state know whether these areas are effective and whether to expand.

The goal for MPAs is to protect marine resources and help sustain habitats.

This project showed the professors and students how integrating subjects increased their potential. Although these fields differ from each other, the team was able to learn how to use them together to make this experiment more effective.

Typically, graduate marine biology students make $28,000 a year and, with a computer science background, they can make $50,000 a year, according to Lowe.

Students are able to increase their income and skills by incorporating other subjects to help advance their field of study and knowledge.

Lowe was able to see how teaching in the future will change because of the advancement in technology and how professors will “have to be more integrative.”

This project was proven successful and the team hopes to test the AUVs again on Catalina Island in October.

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