After Initial Success, Developers Imagine A String Of PEARLs

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Groundwater protection , Waterways

Drs. Maha Haji and Olivier de Weck on Deep Pond with PEARL.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS Like many, she stayed close to home the last few months. She picked up a lot of information about Deep Pond, and made sure to get as much sun as she could. Now she’s taking a break before moving to Pleasant Bay for the summer and fall.

She (that’s how her creators refer to her) is PEARL, aka Platform for Expanding AUV exploRation to Longer ranges (“Auv” stands for autonomous underwater vehicles). Created in a workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge under the leadership of Professor Olivier de Weck and Dr. Maha Haji, PEARL has been gliding across Deep Pond in South Orleans for several months both to collect data and test her capabilities.

“We put her out in mid-October,” Haji said last week as she keyed in coordinates for which the device itself would work out the best route, turning its own motors on and off and calculating the best angles to soak up the most solar energy. “Since December, she’s been logging data: wind speed, air temperature, air pressure, water temperature, humidity.” That “whole ton of data” can be seen at https://followpearl.mit.edu/data/.

The project’s goal is a larger platform that could serve as a hub for autonomous underwater research vehicles, whose efforts are now limited by brief battery lives. A solar-powered PEARL in the ocean would serve as a port of sorts for AUVs, which could dock, be recharged, and transmit their data. Even this early prototype PEARL is tied in to the global Iridium satellite network.

The data buoy is supported by the MIT-Portugal Program. “Portugal is right across from us,” de Weck said. “It used to be a very powerful empire, with trading routes to Asia. Portugal became very poor, but they’re climbing their way back, figuring out how to leverage the ocean and make it an advantage again. One way is to do the technology, from ocean to space. A lot of marine people look down to the water. I’m in aeronautics, and look up at the sky. You can create something between the two and link that, and build this platform.”

PEARL was hauled out of Deep Pond last week for cleaning and the installation of a few upgrades. With the proper permissions, her developers hope she can be tested in Pleasant Bay later this year.

“This is like elementary school,” de Weck said as he looked out at Deep Pond. “Pleasant Bay is like middle school. The coastal ocean is like high school. College is the big ocean.”

Upgrades may include a 360-degree camera as well as hydrophones placed under the water to detect the movement of creatures and crafts. Future versions might serve in part as landing platforms for drones that could monitor far-offshore aquaculture farms and wind farms.

While admittedly thinking big, de Weck and Haji see small-scale uses for the technology as well.

“We can develop a smaller version,” he said, adding with a smile evident even through a face mask, “What if we did a ‘mini-PEARL,’ shrunk by a factor of two or three? There would still be a lot of capabilities. You could put one in every pond you want to monitor and relay data in real time.”