Last November, Jorge Cortes became the PI on an NSF grant entitled “Distributed Ocean Monitoring via Integrated Data Analysis of Coordinated Buoyancy Drogues.”
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is one of the kinds of situations this technlogy would be used in, when it's ready to move from the lab to the ocean.
This technology was recently featured in the weekly radio segment produced by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). You can listen to the very short piece here: WTOP, which is a huge news-only radio station in the Washington DC area.
The first paragraph of the 2009 press release from the Jacobs School of Engineering is below.
To develop control systems for “swarms” of miniature robotic ocean explorers that could one day help predict where ocean currents will carry oil spills, engineers at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering recently won a nearly $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The engineers are leading the development of the control systems for swarms of small, inexpensive, underwater robotic ocean drifters that researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego are designing, building and deploying.