Reports are coming in from the Kermadec Expedition that Nereus, the world’s first Hybrid AUV/ROV and deepest diving robot, has perished. The full-ocean capable robot, who dove to the bottom of Challenger Deep several year before James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger, was lost on a 10,000 meter dive in the Kermadec Trench. Researchers and crew members were hopeful that the fail safes built into the robot would return it to the surface, but, when the small spheres that provided her buoyancy broke through the waves, it was clear that Nereus had been irrecoverably damaged, never to rise again.
James Cameron’s triumphant dive and (equally important) return from the Challenger Deep is a landmark achievement. In 62 years, only 3 people have ever visited the bottom of the Mariana Trench. While budgets for scientific exploration have been cut across the board, Cameron ponied up tens of millions to build only the second human-occupied submersible capable of reaching those depths. But the Deepsea Challenger is not the only visitor to Challenger Deep in the last few decades. In May, 2009 the ROV Nereus plumbed the depths of Challenger Deep. More than a decade before that, Kaikō, a Japanese ROV, became the first unmanned vehicle to reach into the Mariana Trench and return with video, sediment, and biological samples during several return trips.
And, while Alvin is in drydocks and human-occupied submersibles are tragically being mothballed across the country, more remote operated vehicles are exploring the ocean than ever before. They are being built and run by scientific institutions, private firms, public universities, high schools, industrial corporations, and individual citizens. My lab mate and I built one last winter, for fun. And while I agree with Al and Craig at Deep Sea News that ROV’s are not as “sexy” as human occupied submersibles, that is a marketing problem, because, like it or not, ROV’s are the real masters of deep sea exploration. If your goal is to learn as much as possible about the deep ocean, if you want the biggest return on your investment, if you want to involve a huge and diverse exploratory team, the ROV is king.