Unpresidented, Unprecedented, Stolen Underwater Gliders

Monday, 19 December 2016

The press has been full of stories about the US Navy research ‘underwater glider’ (although it was often referred to as an ‘underwater drone’) which the Chinese snatched out of the water and refused – for awhile at least – to hand back. Donald Trump announced it was an ‘unpresidented act’ and later, when his spell checker checked in, corrected it to ‘unprecedented.’

In fact stealing underwater gliders is not so unprecedented. In 2012 I was in Ghizo in the north of the Solomon Islands, on my way to Bougainville when I was writing Dark Lands. When I went out scuba diving with Dive Ghizo I discovered two ‘ocean current gliders’ in the diveshop. They looked pretty similar to the US Navy one the Chinese stole.▼Gliders in Ghizo

Over breakfast in Ghizo I met two guys from an American ocean studies organisation. They were studying the major current – the Western Boundary Current – which runs down the coast of Australia, having looped around the Solomons and PNG – or something similar. They told me it was narrow (100km), but deep and powerful and possibly has a major effect on El Nino. They were studying it with these gliders which are dropped in the water and proceed to glide down to around 600metres depth at which point they turned and glided back up to the surface, popping up perhaps 20km along, having travelled that distance at perhaps 4kph. On the surface the glider phoned home (via Iridium!), reported its position and received instructions on where to go next. The whole ‘trip’ would take four or five months during which time everybody has gone home and just returns at the end to pick it up again.

• for more on the project.
• What do the gliders cost? Made in San Diego, cost about US$100,000.
• How does it dive and and ascend? Oil compresses and releases an air bladder to sink and float the glider. The batteries slide back and forth to control direction.
• Do they ever lose them? Never lost one through a fault although one malfunctioned and disappeared. Months later it called home, there’s a separate emergency call function which must have finally got in alignment to call, and it was retrieved about 120km off Manus Island in PNG.
• The woman from Dive Ghizo reports another was grabbed by local fishermen when it surfaced. They took it back to their village thinking they could sell it somehow, but it was tracked directly to the village hut where it was hidden. Retrieving it still cost time, arguments and money.
• I was told about another glider which was grabbed by a Russian cargo ship in the Pacific. The glider kept sending signals home as the Russian vessel sailed towards Vladivostok. The glider owners contacted the ship and said ‘you’ve got our glider.’ ‘No we don’t,’ the Russians replied. Or lied. Eventually it arrived in Vladivostok, was unloaded and hidden away in some building from where it continued to send ‘come and save me messages’ back home until the batteries went flat. At least the Chinese haven’t denied they stole the latest one.