Bring the trench to the bench or bring the bench to the trench? The future of deep-sea exploration

AndrewThumbNewsweek, in is new and impressive digital format, released a series of articles this week on deep-sea exploration, the challenges of human occupied and remotely-operated vehicles, and the decline in funding for ocean science, particularly in the deep sea. The main article, The Last Dive? Funding for Human Expeditions in the Ocean May Have Run Aground, is a deep, detailed look at the state of deep-sea science, seen through the eyes of Dr. Sylvia Earle and Dr. Robert Ballard, two giants in the ocean community. The follow-up, James Cameron Responds to Robert Ballard on Deep-Sea Exploration, provides insight into the mind of James Cameron, who last year successfully dove the Challenger Deep in his own deep-sea submersible.

Both the articles continue to perpetrate the canard that there is a deep chasm between the human-occupied submersible (HOV) and remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) communities. The reality is that deep-sea scientists use a variety of tools, from mechanical samplers to autonomous robots, to study and understand the deep. The choice comes down to which tool is most efficient, least expensive, and currently available. Absent a sea change, ROV’s will continue to be the workhorses of deep-sea research. And that is a good thing. I sang the praise of my robot underlings the last time this debate breached the public consciousness. I also discussed why basic deep-sea research and training highly skilled ROV pilots is a matter of national security.

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A revolution in underwater exploration for everyone: the open source underwater robot

If you’ve been following me on twitter, checking out some of my YouTube videos, or reading this blog, you probably have a good sense about how enthusiastic I am about ROV’s and how excited I am about the current wave of cheap, easy to build and maintain, functional ROV’s for outreach, teaching, and recreational exploration. Inexpensive, high quality ROV’s can provide us with previously unheard of access to the ocean.

So I’m really excited that OpenROV, an open source project to develop a robotic submarine that anyone can build and use, has  launched their kickstarter page to develop and distribute the OpenROV kit. From the project page:

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I sing the praise of my robot underlings, the workhorses of deep sea exploration

Building the Remote Lee. Photo by Andrew Thaler

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.

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Unguided deep-sea research is essential for national and global security

This Sunday on NPR I heard the following paraphrased comment: “The ROV pilots have never had to deal with anything like this before, no one has trained for the kinds of maneuvers needed to close to well.” I’ve known many ROV pilots. They are all incredibly skilled, know how to handle their robots, and generally have many years of experience working in industrial settings.

But commercial ROV work tends to be monotonous. Many pilots I know spend the vast majority of their time inspecting pipelines and oil rigs, flying over long tracks of seafloor with little to no variation, looking for any signs of damage. When their skills are put to the test, it’s often the same repetitive motion, over and over. Even training simulations to prepare them for catastrophes cannot predict the infinite variations that could occur as an oil-rig collapses. It’s impossible to train for everything.

Until you throw a biologist into the mix.

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