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Monday, April 8, 2013

For the High Seas, a Better Floating Computer

Liquid Robotics, a Sunnyvale, Calif., maker of oceangoing sensor networks, on Monday releases a new model of its seagoing computer. It is larger, faster and can carry more sensors. Just as important, it incorporates lessons its engineers have learned about how to make the Internet function in the real world, and not just within the confines of pristine data centers.

The craft, called the Wave Glider SV3, is about 40 percent longer than its predecessor, and it can carry 100 pounds of gear instead of 40 pounds. That’s long enough to take another row of improved solar panels, so the robot’s ingenious wave-powered propulsion system can be augmented with a low-power thruster. Its predecessor, the SV2, could manage a maximum speed of 1.5 knots. The new model can do 2.5 knots, carrying in its horizontal computer rack a bigger array of sensors, computers and radios that send data back to shore.

The initial customers include oil and gas companies interested in mapping the ocean floor and monitoring oil leaks. Scientific researchers have used these kinds of computers to measure midocean algae blooms, changes in temperature and salinity on the ocean’s surface, and tracking sharks and whales. The Navy is also a customer, for stuff nobody is allowed to talk about.

The craft may be pokey, but they are relentless. Since launching the SV2 in late 2011, Liquid Robotics and its customers have sailed 200 of the floating machines 300,000 nautical miles, including a trip from California to Australia.

Both versions rely on computers and communications systems made from modified cellular telephone semiconductors. Some of the data they gather is processed on board, and they can also be sent instructions to change course or share information.

Liquid Robotics’ chief scientist is John Gage, the inventor of the Java programming language and a longtime luminary at Sun Microsystems. The most interesting advance for him in the new model is how the company is learning to link networks of Wave Gliders to work during hurricanes or when one craft floats off by itself for a couple of days.

“Networking is so different in the real world,” Mr. Gage said. “Bandwidth can be wide open or a soda straw. If something goes off in a data center, you assume it’s dead, or a human can come and fix it; that is not true here, where things can be working but away from the network. It’s a fascinating problem in ambiguity.”

Mr. Gage said he was giving many presentations to other makers of sensor networks, so the Internet can be better adjusted to the real world.