Had the pleasure this past week to chat with James Gosling, the Canadian who invented the Java programming language. As you’ll read in my Clean Break column below, Gosling has spent the past 10 months working for a small company that makes ocean-scouring robots that are powered by wave energy and the sun. It’s a big change for the computer scientist, who is used to working for big companies such as Sun Microsystems and Google. But I bet it’s a hell of a lot more fun…
Calgary-born computer whiz James Gosling is known in the technology world as the “father of Java,” the write once, run anywhere programming language used on billions of mobile phones and Internet servers.
But having spent the past two decades of his life producing Java applications for other people, the 57-year-old computer scientist is now getting a chance to use it himself. After 26 years working at Sun Microsystems and a more recent five-month stint at Google, Gosling decided in August 2011 to leave the world of big IT and dive – literally – into the ocean.
Ten months ago Gosling joined a small company co-headquartered in Silicon Valley and Hawaii called Liquid Robotics, maker of a self-propelled, fully autonomous marine research robot that scours the oceans collecting scientific data with solar-powered sensors.
As Liquid Robotics’ chief software architect, Gosling’s job is to design the back-end systems to best store, manage and visualize what’s expected to become a growing volume of data as more robot drones, called Wave Gliders, are added to the global fleet.
“What could be cooler than robots in the ocean doing science?” Gosling tells me during an interview.
Indeed, they are the first marine robots to use the inexhaustible energy from ocean waves to propel themselves without fuel, meaning zero-carbon mobility.
Each Wave Glider comes in two parts. The first floats on the wavy surface of the water and looks like a surfboard covered in solar panels. It is connected by a six-metre “umbilical” cord to a multi-winged device below called a glider.
The motion of the waves causes the board to bob up and down in the water, movement that is mimicked below by the glider. The wings and fin on the glider are design in such a way that the up and down movement is translated into forward thrust. Navigation can be controlled remotely or pre-programmed into the robot.
“Most people have been trained to try to harness waves for electricity generation, and that turns out to be really, really hard,” Gosling tells me. “But getting thrust? That’s worked out well for us.”
So well that Liquid Robotics broke a Guinness World Record in March when four of its Wave Gliders each travelled roughly 6,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean on a meandering journey from the shoreline of San Francisco to Hawaii. The previous record for an unmanned wave-propelled vehicle was 4,630 km.
Two weeks ago the robots embarked on the final stage of their 16,700-km voyage. Departing Hawaii, two will head to Japan and two to Australia. They should get there by early 2013, possibly earlier.
Gosling says people don’t realize how rugged the Wave Gliders are until, as he has, they’re in the water swimming with them. “When you see pictures of them they look deceptively simple, but they can handle amazing weather,” he says.
That includes eight-metre high waves, gale force winds, and powerful ocean currents. The only serious run-in for one Wave Glider was a shark attack. “This shark just went nuts on it,” Gosling says. “He lost a tooth. He was all over this thing, but all he ever did was scratch the paint.”
So what’s the point of this ambitious Pacific expedition? The sensors on the robots will collect and wirelessly transmit an unprecedented amount of detailed information about ocean conditions.
This includes data points on ocean temperature, wave height, weather conditions, water quality and chemistry, and many others that will shed light on the impacts of global climate change and pollution (though any kind of sensor can be attached to suit the mission, be it scientific or commercial).
Liquid Robotics is making the data available to any scientist, educator, and student – even the general public. As part of what it calls the PacX Challenge, it and its sponsors are offering a $50,000 prize to the research proposal that makes best scientific use of the data. The idea is to raise awareness of Wave Glider capabilities and ocean science in general.
Gosling, who considers himself an environmentalist but not the card-carrying type, admits there’s a huge feel-good aspect to working with a company like Liquid Robotics. The oceans are under stress and the climate is a catastrophe happening in slow motion, he says. Raising awareness of and understanding the problem, its impact and how to adapt is crucial.
“Boy, if we had 10,000 of these in the ocean we’d be able to do an immensely better job of predicting the weather. Even if we just had 100 out there in the Atlantic we could really change hurricane predictions,” he says.
“With so much of the earth, we really don’t know what’s going on.”
Using renewable-powered robots to find out more is, in his words, “incurably cool.”
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.