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-meter “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 kilometers 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.
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.