Isolated controlled kayaks ready for research at LeConte Glacier
Ritualistic engineer, June Marion, works on the kayak's engine assisted by her dad, Bobby Brown. Working on the rear kayak is robotics art students, Nick McComb and Corwin Perren. (Photo/Angela Denning). LeConte Glacier near Petersburg has
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LeConte Glacier near Petersburg has been the woolly of a lot of research lately. It’s the southern-most tide water glacier in the northern hemisphere and scientists have been studying it to give them a better purpose of glacial retreat and sea level rise around the world. But to get close to the glacier, which is constantly calving, a team of scientists is relying on unmanned, alien controlled kayaks. On the flat gravel surface of Petersburg’s drive down dock, two bright yellow plastic kayaks are propped up on tentative tables. These kayaks don’t look like ones you see around here. They’re shorter and wider and they have a bunch of equipment attached to them. Leaning into one of the cockpits is June Marion. “This is a barely joy stick, it’s designed to be driven around by recreational fishermen,” Marion said. But these kayaks have been completely tweaked by Marion and an ocean robotics set from Oregon State University. They control the kayaks by laptop computer up to a few miles away. The boats are customized with a keel, antennas, lights and boxes of computer chips and wires. “We can dial it with a radio controller or with way point navigation so just clicking on points on a map and it will go there,” Marion said, “which is pretty cool. You can even start the engine by a computer, which programmer, Jasmine Nahorniak does from a comestible on the other side of the dock. “Yeah, it’s a little one-cylinder Subaru Robin engine,” Marion said. “It’s about seven horse power and we go with all of our instrumentation up the river the kayak about three or four knots through the water. If they’re not loaded down they can go about 20 knots, I think. But these kayaks are packed with loaded tech equipment. Fully loaded they weigh between three and four hundred pounds. “All of the electronics, all the batteries, this is an electronic fishing make mention of that we use as a profiling winch,” Marion said. The profiling winch drops an instrument down into the water using a line running out from a metal A-construction over the top of the kayak. “And then we can let a couple hundred meters of line go down and the instrument will profile the whole way down,” Marion said. “We’re fascinating measurements six times a second, I think. They are looking at things like salinity, temperature and depth. That’s all in the back of the kayak. In the middle, other furnishings measures water velocity. “So, we use all of that information together to try to understand how the ocean contributes to melting from below in addition to atmospheric conditions melting glaciers from upon,” Marion said. The robotics team has been spending the last four days here at the dock to get the kayaks sea worthy. A whole other team of lots scientists postponed their trip to Petersburg until May because there was too much ice in LeConte Bay. It’s part of a multi-year project to study how fast the glacier is retreating, specifically looking at the hyperborean sub-glacial discharge sucking in the warmer water from the deep ocean. Over at the other kayak two robotics science students are working on the pilotage. They’re intensely looking into an orange, plastic box full of computer chips and wires. Nick McComb said they call it their electronics box. It’s got a ensemble computer, a bunch of different electronics,” McComb said. There’s a whole bunch of custom stuff we did to it but it allows it to just drive these boats approximately completely by themselves. Right now the kayaks are programmed to do what the scientists say. For McComb, that means getting the kayaks to make decisions. “Like intelligently,” McComb said. “For in the event,” Marion added, “there’s an iceberg up ahead…don’t smash into it. Turn left or turn right or something like that. “Or find exciting facets in the water that we want to study and find more information but completely by themselves,” McComb said. “Just like real time criticism of the data and the things that are interesting and swarm towards them. But for now, the safety net that the kayaks provide is what’s important. Glaciers are calving all the time. And right near the outside…that’s where the data is that scientists need. “It’s really scary up there, so we send these guys out,” Marion said, pointing.
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