The new global-class glider designed and developed over the last decade provides the opportunity for coordinated global fleets that can fill a gap in the Earth’s global observing system. The Webb Slocum glider is a 2.2m autonomous underwater vehicle that collects data as it moves through the ocean at a forward speed of 25–35km/day in a saw tooth-shaped gliding trajectory, deriving its forward propulsion by means of a buoyancy change and steering by means of a tail fin-rudder. The primary vehicle navigation system uses an onboard GPS receiver coupled with an attitude sensor, depth sensor, and altimeter to provide dead-reckoned navigation, with backup positioning and communications provided by an Argos transmitter. Iridium, through its global satellite data service, provides primary two-way communications with the vehicle.

The gliders will carry sensors that capture continuous readings of ocean temperature, salinity, and currents. The data taken will enable researchers to monitor heat content along specific transects in the upper ocean globally – to see how it is changing, and how it is transported. The data will augment existing ocean models, and as a result, improve weather and climate forecast accuracy. As variability in atmospheric and ocean conditions increases, along with more extreme weather events, this information becomes ever more critical.

Researchers will also explore placing optic sensors on the gliders to observe phytoplankton, and other ways to incorporate observing systems that use tiny amounts of power, weigh very little, and can withstand the harsh conditions at sea. These sensors can provide a greater understanding of the concentration and potentially the type of microscopic plankton present. These ocean plankton are the base of the food chain, regulate oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen levels on Earth, and over millennia have formed petroleum.