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.

Ballard and Earle have been on opposite sides of this divide for a long time, with Earle pushing for a greater human presence in the ocean and Ballard supporting the continued expansion of telepresence technologies that allow scientist and the public to interact with deep-sea assets from the comfort of facilities like the Inner Space Center in Rhode Island. Cameron, whose most successful movie to date is a essentially a meditation on how awesome it is to pilot a really sophisticated ROV, takes the stance that young minds cannot be inspired by remotely-operated exploration, that someone must be there to “experience it first hand and return to tell the story”, claiming “the quickest way to get even less interest and engagement is to take human explorers out of the vehicles.”

I categorically reject the implication that people cannot be inspired unless another person is physically there. The Mars Curiosity Rover is proof enough that our robotic brethren are nothing less than extensions of our own senses. While government funding for deep-sea exploration is waning, almost 500 people came together to donate more than $110,000 to fund OpenROV, an open source project to put as many ROV’s into the ocean as there are people willing to build them. That my first and formative foray into the deep-sea was through the Jason Project, which placed ROV controls into the hands of elementary school students to explore underwater volcanoes in Hawaii, is not incidental.

In the end, the question of whether deep-sea exploration proceeds with human-occupied or remotely-operated vehicles is a false one. From behind a 4-inch quartz plate or an HD monitor, the operator is still a world away from the deep ecosystems we explore. I was there, in New Zealand, when Cameron presented the results of his historic descent. During the majority of the dive, Cameron operated his sub from a “virtual viewport”–a monitor hooked up to several external video cameras. Even the Deepsea Challenger website reveals that “inches from the pilot’s face a screen projects images captured by a Red Epic 5K camera that generates a wide-angle view—better than what the pilot could see with his eyes—from the narrow end of the sphere’s cone-shaped window.” This statement gets to the heart of my frustration–all submersibles are ROV’s, the only difference is tether length.

Ocean exploration, especially deep ocean exploration is struggling in the United States. We are losing submersibles, but we are also losing ROV’s, research vessels, even entire oceanography departments. Amidst all of this, we are also losing sight of the larger picture. Technology doesn’t create explorers, explorers create technology. Any tool, from Wormcam to Alvin, that provides a glimpse into the wonderful unknown, is a tool worth having.

It is the ocean that inspires us. Everything else is hardware.

Over at Deep Sea News, Dr. M and Al Dove discuss why We Need an Ocean NASA Now: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3