Aquatic robot braves volcanoes and typhoons to detect tsunamis

Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Inc.

The newest and most dangerous island in the world is about to get a robotic sentinel. Since bursting to life 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo in 2013, a massive marine volcano called Nishinoshima has erupted dozens of times, spewing red-hot lava that engulfed a neighboring island. As the volcano has grown, so has the risk it represents to 2,500 people living on the nearby Japanese archipelago of Ogasawara. Should Nishinoshima’s rocky slopes collapse during an eruption, they could trigger a deadly tsunami that would reach the Ogasawara islands within 20 minutes.

Now scientists are planning to give the islanders a robotic protector: a $180,000 autonomous Wave Glider drone that harvests wave and solar energy to move and power itself for months at a time. The bot is kind of a high-tech surfboard connected to an array of underwater wings that convert the up-and-down bobbing of waves into forward motion, moving the machine as fast as three knots.


Sugioka thinks the Wave Glider is now ready to graduate. In May 2017 she plans to deploy the tsunami monitoring system to operate autonomously at Nishinoshima for three months or longer. If it works well, Japan, which is home to about 10 percent of world’s active volcanoes, might roll out a network of surfing, tsunami-spotting drones. “There are many isolated island and submarine volcanoes in Japan, where our system could be a powerful tool for remote monitoring,” she says. When Japan’s next big tsunami inevitably rolls in, it could find people—and robots—ready to meet it.

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