Published: October 2009The Big, Record-Breaking, Green, Disease-Busting, Deep-Sea, Crime-Fighting IDEAS for 2009
Text by Ryan Bradley, Catharine Livingston, Greg Melville, Lucas Pollock, Cliff Ransom, Molly Webster
Photograph by Christopher Churchill
The Engineer
Ocean | Amy Kukulya | Outfitting deepwater robots

Steve Fossett may have wanted to explore the ocean’s depths in a manned submersible, but Amy Kukulya thinks there’s a better way: robots.

As a senior engineering technician at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, Kukulya develops applications for autonomous unmanned vehicles. AUVs are the Predator drones of the ocean, programmable torpedoes that carry out any mission assigned to them. They are cheaper, faster, and more efficient than manned research expeditions, and within the past decade they’ve become the “It” tools for marine scientists. For Kukulya, who helps outfit machines with side-scan sonar, various environmental sensors, and cameras (both video and still), that translates into a lot of work.

“Lately, I’ve been traveling about four months a year,” she says—from the Arctic to the Antarctic, Hawaii to the Bahamas. Kukulya and other members of her Oceanographic Systems Laboratory have sought out shipwrecks, mines, and coral mounds. She has run an AUV through New York City’s West Branch Reservoir. She has collected mountains of oceanographic data, helped create bathymetric maps, and has ongoing projects with the U.S. Navy. “About half the stuff I do is classified,” she says. “I can’t even talk about it.”

Her latest fascination is a project led by Woods Hole scientist Al Plueddemann to analyze the waters of the Chukchi Sea in the Alaskan Arctic. The goal is to better understand the melting of sea ice, a topic of vital importance to climate change models.

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