Using stereo cameras and detection algorithms, Mesobot parses the movements of its objects and follows them. Yoerger and his colleagues demonstrated the capabilities of the robot at a depth of 650 feet in Monterey Bay because it detected and hunted down a jellyfish. What’s more impressive is that it secretly tracked a fragile animal called a larva within half an hour, which resembles a tadpole and built a huge mucus “house” to filter food. (The robot did eventually disrupt the extremely sensitive external structure of the house, but the internal structure of the house and the animals themselves were not disturbed.) Based on their tests, the team believes that the robot may be able to run for more than 24 hours and reach a depth of 3,200 feet.
Currently, Mesobot cannot collect animals, but in the future it can use a suction system to capture animals. For example, just looking at marine life with a camera does not tell you what they eat or where they are in the food web-you need to dissect this. If you want to study their physiology, you also need a physical sample. “The idea is that you follow an animal for a while, and then you will catch it. I think this is very feasible,” Yoerger said.
Mesobot may look like a large AirPods shell, but compared to other manned submersibles and marine robots, it is actually very compact.Perhaps the most famous is Alvin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute also operates. It weighs 45,000 pounds and can only be launched from a specific ship. Mesobot’s smaller size means it is cheaper to build and easier to deploy, which may open up the platform to more researchers. “This is another great victory,” said Singh of Northeastern University. “It doesn’t need all these extra things-large winches, large ships.”
Scientists have long known that species are migrating vertically every day, but so far they have had to study it by capturing them at different depths or using sonar to determine where they gather at a specific time. After all, you cannot attach a tracker to a jellyfish or larva to monitor its movement in detail. “We have very little observation of many fish,” said Luiz Rocha, curator of fish at the California Academy of Sciences, who studied coral reefs in the twilight zone but was not involved in this new work. “We don’t even know how they swim, let alone how they feed or reproduce.”
Scientists don’t have a good understanding of how different species that traverse the middle waters interact with each other. For example, which predators track their prey up and down in the water column? Do animals migrate in compact schools, or do they migrate in a more decentralized manner? Or, how will rising ocean temperatures affect the migration patterns of specific species, and in turn affect other species in their food chain? Oceanographers can try to track them with submersibles, but anything more concealed than Mesobot may scare away all objects. “But if you have a robot that can stay in the water for up to 24 hours and follow a fish or a school of fish, then you can consider studying these phenomena,” Rocha said.
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