The Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration is a non-profit engineering group that designs and builds robots to explore the world’s oceans and large lakes. They are trying to build Yogi, a small research ROV to explore the depths of Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone Lake is a fascinating water body, with hydrothermal vents similar to the deep-sea vents that my primary research focuses on.
I’ll let them explain why this project is so cool:
Why explore Yellowstone Lake?
Yellowstone started a proud tradition of protecting our planet’s most unique environments when it became the world’s first National Park more than a century ago. However, there is a part of Yellowstone that very few people have visited. An entire ecosystem that is hidden from us at the surface. A place that scientists are eager to study and may harbor unknown life; the depths of Yellowstone Lake.
We now know that the bottom of the Lake is far from barren, hosting species of crustaceans, sponges, and even small creatures that feed off of the Earth’s heat and chemistry rather than the Sun. ‘Thermophilic’ (or hot water-loving) microbes thrive in the relatively high-temperatures immediately surrounding active thermal features at the bottom of the Lake and scattered throughout Yellowstone Park. These creatures may be microscopic but they have the potential to profoundly influence the medical and biological sciences.
It’s been a big week for papers here at Southern Fried Science. This morning, Amy, myself, William (of Bomai Cruz fame), and Dominik and Erika of OpenROV published our guidelines on minimizing the potential for microROVs to act as invasive species vectors in Tropical Conservation Science. The abstract:
Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) present a potential risk for the transmission of invasive species. This is particularly the case for small, low-cost microROVs that can be easily transported among ecosystems and, if not properly cleaned and treated, may introduce novel species into new regions. Here we present a set of 5 best-practice guidelines to reduce the risk of marine invasive species introduction for microROV operators. These guidelines include: educating ROV users about the causes and potential harm of species invasion; visually inspecting ROVs prior to and at the conclusion of each dive; rinsing ROVs in sterile freshwater following each dive; washing ROVs in a mild bleach (or other sanitizing agent) solution before moving between discrete geographic regions or ecosystems; and minimizing transport between ecosystems. We also provide a checklist that microROV users can incorporate into their pre- and post-dive maintenance
Newsweek, 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.
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:
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 Nereusplumbed 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.
In this week’s edition of Shark Science Monday, Matt Baronio of Southern Cross University discusses using Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to study shark behavior. If you have a question for Matt, please leave a comment on this post and I’ll make sure he gets it.
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.