Autonomous vehicles help both scientific researchers and DIY underwater explorers go deeper than they’ve ever gone before.
Unmanned missions are the norm in the volatile and harsh vacuum of space, and now they’re becoming more common here on Earth, especially underwater. Technology continues to make data collection easier and more efficient, even building robots that can survive the dangers of deep sea.
In Antarctica, two missions take advantage of the latest in both hardware and software.
In November 2014, the SeaBED team — comprised of scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia — released their impressively rendered high-resolution 3D maps of Antarctic sea ice.
Unlike previous readings that looked down upon the seafloor, SeaBED — an autonomous sort of drone of the sea — successfully mapped sea ice from underneath the surface, providing accurate ice thickness measurements from areas too difficult to access by traditional means.
“The full 3D topography of the underside of the ice provides a richness of new information about the structure of sea ice and the processes that created it,” said Dr. Guy Williams of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS). “This is key to advancing our models, particularly in showing the differences between Arctic and Antarctic sea ice.”
Providing new measurements from places only the unmanned SeaBED can reach will help fill in the holes of climate scientists’ understanding of the Antarctic ice sheets, particularly why some ice has grown despite the continuing trend of retreating ice cover and generally accepted prediction models.
In keeping with Moore’s Law — the idea that technology becomes smaller and more powerful at a compounding rate — the SeaBED is only six feet long and weighs just under 500 pounds.
Another lightweight and low-cost submersible with cutting-edge features is the underwater robot openROV. It maneuvers with three thrusters and comes equipped with LED lighting and 1080p HD video recording capabilities, like a GoPro, as well as lasers for both scaling and distance measurements.
Like the GoPro and drones, it was born out of a community of DIY citizen ocean explorers. As such, openROV, as the name suggests, feeds off open source.
GitHub hosts a repository of codes for custom modification and home hacking. The openROV sells for less than $1,000.
“Price is probably the biggest obstacle to science right now, especially when it’s facing public or even grant funding,” said Christopher Sims, a certified professional archaeologist and geographic information system (GIS) specialist who has participated in digs internationally.
“When you bring open access into the equation, you bring down the price and widen your options in ways that can be molded to adapt to a specific problem or project to explore very specific questions better than traditional methods,” he said.
Sims sees openROV and similar vehicles as an asset to not only access difficult and hazardous sites, but also to collect data without disturbing evidence or the environment.
Along with cheaper hardware and more malleable software, open and crowdsourced data provides a significant asset to research projects at a fraction of the cost.
Like PhoneSAT, which welcomes citizen stargazers and radio enthusiasts to record transmissions from near-Earth satellites in place of building ground stations, openROV provides a wealth of tools and robust data for cash-strapped projects.
“We have the equipment and the process of management, but the challenge is to go out and get the data,” Sims said. “The goal is to do your science with more precision and accuracy. If you can do it more quickly and cheaply, that’s always an added bonus.”
Projects in the sea like openROV and seaBED, and their counterparts in space like PhoneSAT, open up incredibly exciting possibilities in the scientific community. Great projects of meager means, in the face of increasing governmental and private sector budget cuts, can still move forward as armchair science enthusiasts collect vital data for scientists to interpret.
All photos courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Hanumant Singh and Peter Kimball.