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WAYWARD WALDO POPS UP AFTER GOING OFF DEEP END

A malfunction likely made the robot dive deep.

Waldo, the Red Tide-sniffing robot who disappeared for 10 days, is back home with his family.

Waldo appears to be unharmed and is recovering at Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory as scientists try to piece together what happened.

The same day the St. Petersburg Times reported Waldo missing, the autonomous underwater vehicle suddenly sent out a satellite signal from the Gulf of Mexico. Around 6 a.m. Thursday, a computer scientist who handles the robot's operations from his home in Virginia awoke to a beep.

It was Waldo.

The robot was back in the spot where he disappeared, about 11 miles off the coast of Venice.

The scientist contacted Gary Kirkpatrick, the Mote researcher who named Waldo and outfitted him with a special Red Tide detector.Kirkpatrick called the lab's marine crew. The staff set out by boat, following GPS coordinates. And there was Waldo, floating alone in the water, waiting to go home.

"It's been a pretty amazing morning," Kirkpatrick said, laughing. "We were hoping something like this would happen. But with each day, we were starting to think we'd never see him again."

Waldo is one of three autonomous underwater robots the Mote lab operates, though Waldo is the only one that collects research data on Red Tide for Mote. Carmen and Nemo, the sibling robots, are actually owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The robots cost about $100,000 apiece, and Waldo's Red Tide device cost an additional $30,000. The lab offered a $500 reward for Waldo's return - no questions asked.

But Waldo appeared to return on its own. Scientists are still sifting through the considerable amount of data Waldo collects about itself and water around it, Kirkpatrick said. But it appears something caused the robot to malfunction and dive to the bottom of the gulf.

"He just sat there with his nose up for 10 days," Kirkpatrick said. "He aborted his original mission, so he knew something was wrong."

It was not immediately clear what caused Waldo to return to the surface and begin sending signals again.

Kirkpatrick and his staff hope to pinpoint exactly what that was before letting Waldo carry out any more research missions. Mote has been using the robot for four years, and it can typically go out for about three weeks at a time.

This time, Waldo was out for five days before it suddenly stopped sending signals back to the lab. Scientists had theories ranging from a fisherman finding it to possible waterlogging to alien abduction, Kirkpatrick said.

It appears the adventure was not quite as interesting as they imagined, but nonetheless, they are relieved to have Waldo back.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

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