NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

The latest news and information about NOAA research in and around the Great Lakes

New under-ice observing capabilities could lead to new discoveries in the Great Lakes

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***UPDATED DECEMBER 2022***

During the dog days of summer here in the Great Lakes, scientists at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) are already thinking about the ice that will form on the lakes this winter.

This year, NOAA GLERL and a team of federal, university, and industry partners are conducting test deployments of an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) in Lake Michigan, with the ultimate goal of using it under lake ice during winter to collect ecological and water quality data. Observations of winter ecology are difficult to obtain compared to observations in the ice-free season, when most fieldwork takes place – which makes this hunt for winter data especially important. 

In the world of Great Lakes research, the start of winter traditionally signals the end of fieldwork for the year. Buoys come out of the water, and research vessels – which aren’t designed for use in ice-covered waters – are docked for the season. Scientists get to work analyzing new data from the previous field season and tuning up field equipment for a fresh start in the spring. This break leads to a several-month gap in most of GLERL’s field data, but this project aims to fill that gap using the high-tech SAAB Sabertooth AUV. 

Video by Great Lakes Outreach Media.

One underwater robot, many important jobs

One of the AUV’s main tasks will be to collect water quality data, benthic (lake bottom) data, and fish and zooplankton observations. These observations will be collected using an acoustic imaging system, and will contribute to our understanding of important wintertime ecological processes in the Great Lakes. While summer is widely considered to be the peak time of year for biological productivity, biological processes still occur during the winter and are understudied in the Great Lakes. NOAA GLERL’s winter observations may even lead to unexpected discoveries, as new GLERL data suggest that some Great Lakes biological processes may actually accelerate during the winter months. Ice cover is seen as a key variable in the regulation of biological processes in the lakes during winter. Enhancing our understanding of these processes is particularly important as climate change may have implications for the extent, thickness, and duration of seasonal ice cover. 

The Saab Sabertooth is an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that NOAA GLERL will operate under ice during winter in the Great Lakes.

The AUV also will characterize winter distributions of prey fish using a multi-frequency echosounder. Spawning in prey fish species like bloater also take place during winter, in turn affecting predator stocks (like lake trout) that help underpin a 7 billion-dollar annual Great Lakes fishery. Additionally, the AUV will contribute valuable data on the distribution of invasive mussels to NOAA GLERL’s 25-year ecological monitoring program. The AUV will map the locations of invasive mussel reefs on the lake floor using sonar technology and high-resolution imagery.

World-class technology in the Great Lakes

The SAAB Sabertooth AUV is no average piece of fieldwork equipment; it’s among the most advanced and complex underwater vehicles in the world. Navigation is one of the biggest challenges AUVs face, since GPS signals are unavailable underwater. This AUV contains an Inertial Navigation System, which keeps track of the vehicle’s movements with extreme precision. Based on its known deployment location, the vehicle uses this navigation system to calculate its exact location throughout its mission with minimal error. When within range, acoustic beacons anchored nearby in the lake are also used to confirm the AUV’s location.

Acoustic beacon is deployed in Lake Michigan for AUV navigation system updates. Brad Hibbard dials in a highly accurate beacon location.  

In addition to the AUV itself, this effort also includes the development of a fully integrated docking station that allows the vehicle to recharge its battery and transfer the data it’s collected during its winter excursion. The vehicle’s ability to safely dock, charge its battery, and transmit data to scientists is a critical component in its ability to function under ice without human help.

AUV docking station built by Hibbard Inshore. The dock allows vehicle recharging and data transfer through a Sonardyne BlueComm optical communications system. Hibbard and Saab used Sonardyne acoustic beacons to enable autonomous docking.

***

DECEMBER 2022 UPDATE

The most recent phase of this project, conducted in December 2022 at the beginning of meteorological winter, tested the AUV’s docking station and charging capabilities for the first time. The highly successful field trials achieved several goals:

  • The AUV autonomously navigated through the Muskegon Channel and out into Lake Michigan, where it successfully collected ecological data and mapped the lake floor.
  • Back in the channel, the AUV autonomously docked itself, using Sonardyne acoustic beacons to confirm its location.
  • Once docked, the AUV transferred the data it had collected and successfully recharged its battery from a Teledyne Energy Systems Subsea Supercharger® hydrogen fuel cell. As a truly groundbreaking outing, this field trial was the first time the Saab AUV has ever been charged underwater using a fuel cell power source.

So, where will all this new data go? The AUV’s data will ultimately be added to GLERL’s Realtime Coastal Observation Network (ReCON).

Lowering the Teledyne Energy System’s Subsea Supercharger® hydrogen fuel cell into the water. The fuel cell was used to recharge Hibbard Inshore’s Saab AUV internal batteries.
After several days of testing the docking and
navigation capabilities, the AUV headed out into
Lake Michigan for a trial to collect ecosystem data.

***

Smooth sailing beneath the surface

The large size of the AUV provides ample space, flotation, and electrical resources for simultaneously carrying a large suite of sensors that make multitasking a breeze for this high-tech vehicle. The various sensors work together to ensure the vehicle stays upright, avoids collisions with boats, and doesn’t accidentally hit the bottom of the lake. Plus, robust propellers allow the AUV to make precise turns and hover at a fixed depth, making it much easier to maneuver than its torpedo-shaped cousins.

Preparing this AUV for deployment is no small task. Vehicle setup was completed by the Hibbard Inshore and Saab team over several days.

When it’s not in the Great Lakes helping NOAA with environmental research, this vehicle can usually be found performing tunnel inspections at hydroelectric power facilities around the world – including locations like California, South Korea, and Turkey. The AUV’s ability to navigate through these tunnels allows them to be inspected without being drained, saving considerable time and money. Just as it navigates through these enclosed tunnels, this impressive underwater robot could soon be navigating its way under Great Lakes ice cover.

NOAA GLERL’s partners on this project include Hibbard Inshore, Saab Dynamics AB, Teledyne Energy Systems, the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

NOAA Disclaimer: This publication does not constitute an endorsement of any commercial product or intend to be an opinion beyond scientific or other results obtained by NOAA.

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