A robot that was AWOL last week from its red tide patrol in Southwest Florida resurfaced at 6:06 a.m. Thursday and once again began signaling its position to Mote scientists.
Mote staff didn't waste a minute before hopping in a boat and recovering the robot, called an autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV for short. "We're thrilled to have Waldo back," said Gary Kirkpatrick, inventor of the payload the AUV carried to detect red tide. "It's our only AUV currently patrolling for red tide, and it's crucial for studying algae blooms."
Waldo, the AUV nicknamed for the popular cartoon character from the "Where's Waldo" series, was found about 50 feet from the last place it was tracked, about 11 miles west of Venice. The robot was listing slightly to one side, but the researchers have yet to discover why it lost touch with satellites.
"We think it's possible that it was snagged on something underwater," Kirkpatrick said. "But we'll need to check the data it was collecting to see if that helps shed some light on what happened."
The robot had been patrolling Southwest Florida waters since Aug. 26 carrying a a device designed by Kirkpatrick and built at Mote to automatically detect red tide. Waldo was supposed to report its position to Mote scientists via satellite each time it surfaced - about every two hours. But as it glided along on Aug. 31 near Venice, it stopped sending signals.
Mote scientists searched for the 115-pound, canary-yellow robot for more than 10 days using side-scan sonar, VHF, hydrophones, airplane surveys, snorkelers and divers. When Waldo lived up to its nickname by proving extremely difficult to find, the scientists even put a call out to the public for help.
"It's funny, we really worked the spot where Waldo was eventually found," Kirkpatrick said. "There's a lot of marine snow, algae and a lot of moon and comb jellies there when we had divers in the water. Those factors may all have played a role in why we couldn't locate the AUV once it had gone missing."
Waldo — valued at $100,000, plus another $30,000 for its red tide detector — has been "on the job" for Mote since 2005, through a grant from Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).