WHOI Researcher: Underwater Tech Driving Knowledge Of Oceans

By: Elizabeth Van Wye

Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Jason, designed, built, and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for exploring the ocean depths. COURTESY PHOTO

As anyone who has attempted to recover their lost sunglasses after they fell off a boat can attest, even clean ocean water is impenetrable beyond a few inches. Over the past decades, dramatic improvements in our ability to explore the ocean depths have taken place and yet there is still so much to be learned about the ocean, whose well-being is critical to our global ecosystem.

More than 80 people were online Thursday evening to hear Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) scientist and engineer Andy Bowen discuss the increasing sophistication of ocean exploration for the first program in Chatham Marconi Maritime Center's 2021 Speaker Series.

Progress in underwater research often came as a result of significant human catastrophes in the water. The loss of the Navy submarine USS Thresher in 1963, with 129 crew members 220 miles off Boston, propelled research in this area.

"There were demands for advances in the technology to search and survey the deepest parts of the ocean," Bowen said. "The desire to understand and learn led to purposeful development of technology."

By the mid '80s legendary oceanographer Dr. Bob Ballard had begun to build a team of scientists at Woods Hole. In 1985 his team got a chance to test their new imaging vehicle Argo on its first deep-sea cruise, towed from the Research Vessel Knorr. Their mission was to locate the wreckage of the Titanic.

Argo could dive deeper and stay there longer than others, while exploring wider areas, as well as sending better pictures. In September of that year they located the SS Titanic in 12,000 feet of water. The discovery marked a turning point for public awareness of the ocean, according to WHOI, and for the development of new areas of science and technology.

The development of towed sled vehicles to image the seafloor was only the beginning. In addition to towed sleds, today’s robotic vehicles include tethered remotely operated vehicles and completely autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).

In 1980 the British cargo ship MV Derbyshire was lost south of Japan in a typhoon, and 44 crew and family members perished. Called in by the British government to search for the wreckage in 1989, the WHOI team deployed Argo II, a high altitude towed imaging system, and the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Medea/Jason system to locate the wreck and debris field, conduct a detailed photographic survey of the site, and examine individual pieces of wreckage. Investigators were able to conclude that flooding was the cause of the sinking and help drive changes in regulation for better safety.

In 2009, Air France Flight 447 disappeared while on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris with 216 passengers and 12 crew. On April 4, 2011, a search team led by WHOI located the wreckage of the Airbus jet nearly 2.5 miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

Key to this discovery were three REMUS 6000s, AUVs which detected the debris on the sea floor and mapped the data field. AUVs are highly efficient gravity powered programmable robotic vehicles that can come to the surface, require low upkeep and are capable of crossing oceans. "Their diversity provides researchers a great ability to explore," Bowen said.

Finding the data recorder from the container ship El Faro, lost in Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, en route from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico, was like finding a "needle in a haystack" according to Bowen. "The Navy located the wreckage but the data recorder was missing," Bowen said. WHOI's Sentry, a one-of-a-kind AUV funded by the National Science Foundation, was a key tool in finding it, doing precision mapping of the floor. Sentry towed a fiber optically-controlled robotic vehicle called Camper to collect video imagery around the site.

Over this period of time, Bowen wrote, "much has changed; we have gone from deep ocean survey tools behind simple towed vehicles, having the limited ability to 'snap pictures,' to today’s tethered and untethered robots exhibiting ever-increasing capabilities to perform a range of complex tasks."

In response to a question from listeners about whether WHOI was involved in clearing the ocean of plastics, Bowen noted that even in the very deepest part of the ocean, there are plastics and garbage. WHOI has several efforts underway to understand the science of plastics in the ocean and to develop tools to identify where they originate and work on more degradable plastics.

The next program in the series is set for Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. Featured will be author Ira Brodsky on wireless technology. For more information go to www.chathammarconi.org.