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Every weekday morning CAI brings you coverage of local issues, news, and stories that matter. Join us for Morning Edition from 6 a.m. to 9a.m., with Kathryn Eident.

Underwater Glider Seized By Chinese Made on Cape Cod

Ben Allsup, Teledyne Webb Research

China returned an underwater glider to the United States this week, several days after seizing it from a U.S. Navy ship conducting research in the South China Sea.

It turns out that the torpedo-shaped device at the center of an international incident was made right here on Cape Cod, at a facility that develops equipment for both the Navy and for scientists.  

WCAI’s Kathryn Eident visited Teledyne-Webb to learn more about what gliders do and why the government uses these types of instruments.


The company that makes the now-infamous “underwater drones” is tucked in the back of an industrial park off Route 28-A in North Falmouth. A bright blue building houses half a dozen marine technology outfits under the umbrella of Teledyne. Webb Research is one of them. 

Senior Director for Technology Clayton Jones shows me around the more than 30-thousand-square-foot space. It includes a production area, test pool, and administrative offices. In the warehouse, we look at gliders getting prepared to be sent out. Each cylindrical glider is bright yellow, about six feet long, and roughly the diameter of a pie plate. There are fins on the back end of each one, and some have propellers. They’re designed to “fly” through the water, much the way their airborne counterparts glide through the sky. 

“Two people can pick it up on a cart, bring them on a small boat, drop them in the water and recover them again,” he said. 

Seeing them in person, it’s easier to understand why the kerfuffle with the Chinese made some people wonder just what the U.S. was doing with this unusual instrument. Were Navy sailors looking for submarines or conducting some other clandestine operation? 

Jones says the truth is much less thrilling. He says the glider most likely was conducting basic oceanography off one of the Naval fleet’s research ships—a routine operation that happens all over the world. In fact, most of the more than 600 gliders built so far at Teledyne-Webb were designed for scientists at research institutions, not the Navy. Hardly the stuff of a gripping spy story. 

“They were certainly not weaponized,” he said. “Our focus has really been supporting academia. And in the Navy, there are oceanographers also, and so they’re after the same information.”

Jones says the gliders are basically a platform to hold a variety of sensors.

They’re really just pickup trucks,” he said. “They’re there to basically get data and feed it back to, you know, the person that has interest in that data set.”  

Gliders have been around since the early 2000s, when Webb Research put the first one on the commercial market. Former Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution engineer Doug Webb came up with the idea in the late 1980s, and spent years developing the systems that would allow them to glide at low speeds through the water for long lengths of time. 

Today, researchers around the world use gliders to study everything from ocean currents to hurricanes, to penguin colonies in Antarctica. 

“Ways to understand our environment that we wouldn't be able to do easily or otherwise or at much less or reduced cost,” he said.

Nearly all the data collected goes into a publicly-accessible database., as well.

Jones says they’re most excited about how college students use the gliders. A group from Rutgers University was the first to guide a glider on a trans-oceanic trip in 2009. Now students clamor to get into the course that features the glider. 

“There’s a real diverse group of students coming into this class,” he said. “They may not ever become oceanographers, but they certainly will have an understanding of, and will have touched, the world of oceanography and its place in our world.” 

That’s not to say Jones wasn’t a little surprised when he saw the President-elect tweeting about one of Teledyne Webb’s gliders earlier this week. 

“This is a little different,” he said. “We haven’t seen this before, but they [have made] international news.”

Maybe next time a glider makes the headlines, it will be for a scientific discovery rather than political intrigue.


Kathryn Eident was the Morning Edition Host and Senior Producer of News until November 2022.