Using stereo cameras and detection algorithms, Mezobot analyzes and tracks people’s movements. Jürger and his colleagues demonstrated the robot’s capabilities in Monterey Bay at a depth of 650 feet, where it discovered and then chased jellyfish. Even more impressively, it surreptitiously tracked for half an hour a fragile animal called a larva, which looks like a tadpole and builds a giant mucus “house” to filter its food. (The robot eventually disturbed the home’s highly sensitive exterior, but the home’s internal structure and the animal itself remained undisturbed.) Based on their tests, the team believes the robot may be able to operate for more than 24 hours and reach depths. 3200 ft.
Currently, Mesobot cannot collect animals, but in the future it can use a suction system to catch them. Just watching marine creatures with a camera won’t tell you what they eat, for example, and thus where they fit into the food web – you’ll need an autopsy for that. If you want to study physiology, you need a physical specimen as well. “The idea is to follow an animal for a while, and then hold on to it. I think that’s very possible,” says Juerger.
Mesobot may look like a large AirPods case, but compared to other manned submarines and ocean bots, it’s actually quite compact. Perhaps the most famous is two thousand, which is also operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. It weighs 45,000 pounds and can only be launched from one select vessel. Mesobot’s smaller size means it’s cheaper to build and easily deployable, which will likely open up the platform for more researchers. “This is another big victory,” says Northeastern University’s Singh. “It doesn’t need all that extra stuff — big cranes, big ships.”
Scientists have long known that the species makes a daily vertical migration, but until now they had to study it by hunting them from different depths, or using sonar to determine where they congregate at a particular time. After all, it’s not like you can slap a tracker on a jellyfish or a larva to monitor its movements in fine detail. “We have very few observations of a lot of fish,” says Louise Rocha, a curator of fisheries at the California Academy of Sciences, who studies twilight corals but was not involved in this new work. “We don’t even know how they swim, let alone how they eat or how they reproduce.”
And scientists don’t have a good idea of how the different species traveling through middle waters interact; For example, what predators follow their prey up and down the water column? Do animals migrate in narrow schools or more scattered? Or how might rising ocean temperatures affect how a particular species migrates, and that in turn might affect other species in their food chain? Oceanologists could try to track them down with submarines, but anything less ghostly than a Mesobot would probably scare everyone away. “But if you have a robot that can stay submerged for up to 24 hours, and follow a fish or group of fish for that whole time, you can consider studying these phenomena,” Rocha says.
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