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Solar-powered robots to track sharks

Now sharks, too, will have easy access to Wi-Fi hot spots. But the wireless signal-transmitting hot spots aren't for the sharks to use — they're part of a network of robots that are being deployed in the Pacific Ocean to gather data about where sharks, whales and other ocean predators swim. The robots will start gathering data this summer from predators that already have been tagged with acoustic devices.

"Our goal is to use revolutionary technology that increases our capacity to observe our oceans," marine scientist Barbara Block, who organized the network from her laboratory at Stanford University, said in a statement.

Block is sending to sea a combination of fixed buoys and solar-powered, self-propelling robots that look a bit like surfboards when they're in the water. (The robots, called Wave Gliders, set a Guinness world record in March for the longest distance traveled by unmanned vehicles.) Each buoy and robot will be able to detect any tagged animals that pass within 1,000 feet of it. The buoys and robots then will send their data to researchers on land in real time.

The network will cover a stretch of ocean off the Northern California shore from Tomales Point to Monterey Bay.

Scientists have long observed ocean migrations by tagging animals with devices that periodically send the animals' locations, the surrounding water temperature and other data to a satellite. Researchers then download the satellite data for study.

This new network will add finer detail to those satellite observations. Eventually, Block says, she hopes to use the network to track even animals that are too small for satellite tagging, such as salmon smolts, and to expand the network over the entire western coast of North America.

Another advantage to the new buoys and bots is that they'll send their data to a free iPhone and iPad app that Block's colleagues have developed. Shark Net will show a real-time map of all the Northern California white sharks that the buoy-bot network detects. Users will be able to pick a shark and see a 3D model of it, complete with the marks and unique fin shapes that researchers use to distinguish individuals. Users also will be able to look up photos, videos and historical tracking data.

"They can follow individual sharks and learn about their lives and feeding habits," said Randall Kochevar, a member of Block's lab and one of app's developers.

Kochevar said he hopes people who download the app will get a greater appreciation for the area off the California coast, which an extensive ocean survey showed to be one of the most biodiverse ocean habitats in the world.

The public's appreciation could help with one of Block's and her colleagues' larger goals. They're lobbying for that section of the California coast to be designated a United Nations World Heritage Site, which would help with conservation efforts in the area. "My mission is to protect ocean biodiversity and the open sea," Block said.

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