The concept of “the last frontier” is one frequently bandied about by popular writers. Whether the phrase refers to the Western frontier of American expansion in centuries past, or specific “hot” fields of scientific inquiry, or the vast expanse of interplanetary and interstellar space, the concept is always the same: there’s one Great Mysterious Place left for us to go, and (“fill in the blank”) is that Place.
It turns out that frontiers don’t work like that. It’s true that sometimes a constraint closes off further exploration of a place; once the American border reached the Pacific Ocean, there wasn’t a whole lot of Old West left to “discover.” (The people who had already been living there for 10,000 years probably knew that.) But it’s far more common to find that expansion and discovery are never-ending, that new exploration is always worthwhile, that there is always something more over the horizon.
Or under it. For centuries – actually, for millennia - the world ocean of our planet has been a vast empty space on the map. Explorers skimmed its surface looking for new land-based opportunity, and merchants and warriors fought along its peripheries for access to new markets and new resources on the lands that the ocean adjoins. What lay beneath has been a murky question mark – a question mark hard to find, harder to reach, and almost impossible to exploit.
Technological progress is rapidly revising that predicament. The earliest historically-attested submersible vehicles, built in the 1600s, could attain depths of less than a hundred feet, in calm waters, for periods of a few minutes at best – and couldn’t see or do much while they were down there. Today’s bathyspheres, submarines, and advanced remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) have reached the uttermost depths of the ocean floor, can move at up to 40 miles per hour underwater, can stay submerged for weeks or even months, and can visualize and interact with environmental features and objects with a huge variety of tools. The ocean, while not “the last frontier” (because we aren’t likely to run out of those), is now a frontier which is eminently accessible.
It’s a frontier with resources that humanity desperately needs. The potential is almost infinite – fully three-quarters of the surface of our world is under the ocean. And although much of the ocean floor is theoretically “barren” – not much growing there, not much living there – there are subsurface resources almost beyond cataloguing. In fact, we haven’t even begun to catalogue them – they’ve been too hard to reach! But as that is changing, the potential for energy resources – oil and gas just to start, although uranium and thorium are more likely to be long-term contributors to the global economy – is vast. Already, about a sixth of US oil production comes from offshore and the numbers are building quickly. Deep-water oil formations have barely begun to be explored, and although there are environmental considerations, the ocean is likely to produce the majority of world energy needs within our lifetimes.
There is also tremendous potential for health and wellness from the undersea environment. In today’s pharmaceutical environment, many dramatic developments in new treatments and new drugs come from exploitation of newly-discovered species. For example, a promising breast-cancer drug is under development from a species of Japanese black sponge, while a bacteria found in the Bahamas has been shown to produce compounds that can be used to produce antibiotics and cancer-fighting drugs. What’s even more exciting is that an estimated 90% of oceanic species have not yet been discovered or catalogued – the extent of this incredible harvest of potential medical advances is literally waiting to be discovered.
Underwater cave diving is one of the most interesting, fascinating, and dangerous types of underwater exploration, and offers divers the relatively rare opportunity to explore genuinely unknown territory. From the cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula to the submerged coastal caves of Mallorca, underwater caves are beautiful, archeologically important, but perilous to untrained and trained divers alike. The dangers of underwater cave diving have led to the development of strict protocols and training regimes for underwater cavers, which ironically have made the actual death rates from such diving fairly low.
Unlike open-water diving, where a diver in distress can simply head to the surface, cave diving is a type of penetration diving. To leave the dive zone, the diver must swim back out of the cave, as far as he or she has already penetrated, reversing an often difficult navigational process and requiring enough air to reach the surface. Caves can have strong currents, both of inflow and outflow varieties, and some cave systems have inflows to one egress and outflows from others, meaning that a diver can easily underestimate the amount of time it will take to retrace a route. Visibility can vary wildly from perfect to zero within the same cave. In addition, there is a possibility of getting lost in a cave of any significant size.
All of these factors mean that cave diving is out of reach of casual divers (or should be), and cave exploration thus left to a relatively small cadre of extremely well-trained divers. However, the development of inexpensive and easy-to-use ROVs has changed the balance in cave exploration. ROVs can be sent into the water by people with zero dive experience to explore caverns, caves and cave systems in perfect safety. Modern ROVs have high-resolution video camera systems and powerful lighting systems which permit incredibly detailed views of the underwater environment, efficient electric motors that allow hours of underwater time, and long tethers which permit explorers to penetrate hundreds of meters into underwater cave systems. In addition, a small ROV can be packed overland to inaccessible inland underwater caves, such as the deep cenotes in the Yucatan, or easily deployed from a small boat in coastal locations.
ROVs are also a useful support tool for experienced divers who are exploring difficult or unknown cave systems. ROVs can be used to ‘scout’ unfamiliar passages or to check whether there is a passageway between two tunnel systems, without putting a human diver at risk. Because ROVs have a much longer dive duration than a human diver, a single scouting mission with an ROV can open up large areas of new caves for the human divers to follow up on. ROVs can also find the most interesting areas for human divers to explore, allowing the limited human dive times to be spent in the most enjoyable or most important areas of the cave system.
Although many underwater cave explorers are motivated purely by recreation or the challenge, there is also considerable scientific interest in exploring underwater caves. ROVs have been an enormous asset to scientists and archaeologists in exploring the cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula in Central America. Cenotes are large sinkholes that open onto groundwater from an underlying aquifer. There are thought to be more than 2,500 cenotes in the Yucatan area alone, and many of them are of great archeological significance because they were used as ceremonial sites by the Maya civilization. Although many large cenotes have been at least somewhat explored by archeologists in the last century, many remain untouched or even undiscovered. Researchers and explorers have been using ROVs since the early 2000s to explore and map the Yucatan cenotes, as well as the extensive underground cave systems that many cenotes connect to. As in most areas where ROVs are deployed, ROVs used in cave exploration serve to greatly extend the range and effectiveness of human divers, and also open up new possibilities that simply would not exist without these useful tools.
There is a story – probably apocryphal – that one of the early Roman emperors was approached by an inventor who had created a steam-powered device for moving huge marble columns around, an invention of obvious interest to the monument-building Romans. The emperor rewarded the man for his innovation, but declined to purchase the device for the empire, stating that he had a city full of workmen who needed to eat, and the invention would put them all out of work. In the modern era, most of us recognize that the addition of powered machinery doesn’t permanently take jobs away from workers; rather, it changes the nature of their work, usually for the better. Today’s construction machine operators make a lot more money and work a lot more safely than did the burly gangs of workmen in Roman times.
In many ways, we’re smarter than our Roman forerunners. Today we are a lot more likely to see opportunity in new technology, not threats. Commercial divers sometimes worry about ROVs undercutting them on price for some kinds of jobs, but the opportunities for new business provided by ROVs are a much larger vein of possible work. ROVs represent an affordable way for divers to expand their businesses by increasing the human diver’s capabilities while simultaneously cutting costs and improving safety. ROVs are not going to replace human divers – instead, they are going to add to those divers’ ability to work productively underwater.
Diving is difficult and often dangerous work. It’s uncommon for a client to need a diver to conduct a brief excursion in crystal-clear waters in order to do some trivial task. Rather, divers are asked to handle hard jobs in unpleasant and sometimes unsafe conditions. Many times, a job can’t be done because there’s no way to do it safely. ROVs can change that, because an ROV worth a few thousand dollars can be risked in many situations where a human life would be at too much risk. That ability to run additional risks with only hardware on the line can actually improve the ability of a dive team to take on a job, because the ROV can scout the work and establish whether or not it actually is a human-achievable job.
Many diving jobs involve a great deal of reconnaissance and scouting in order to do an hour’s worth of actual work. For example, in a salvage operation, a diver may spend days looking around a site and finding the items that are worth retrieving, then do the actual salvage work in an afternoon. However, all of that scouting time is just as expensive, just as dangerous, and just as exhausting as the actual paying work at the end. An ROV doesn’t require a trained commercial diver for its operation; the diver can hire support personnel (who work a lot cheaper) to do the scout work with a controlled ROV, then go into the water herself later on when the job is narrowed down. Same payday, but a lot less cost upfront – plus the diver can work more actual jobs.
Some jobs which require a human diver can actually be done under a diver’s direction but without the diver having to go into the water, or at least not having to go in as much. For example, hull inspections or damage surveys often involve putting eyes on the target, but don’t require any hands-on work. A diver reviewing an ROVs video feed can do just as good a job as if they had been in the water the entire time – but again, with much lower costs and no risk. Remember, risk costs money – in insurance premiums, in medical expenses, in training costs – and reducing risk is effectively the same as putting money back in your pocket.
Even hands-on work like underwater repair can be made more efficient and less stressful with intelligent use of ROVs. ROVs can be used to survey the worksite and get good information into the dive planner’s hands before anyone puts a foot in the water. And while the divers are actually working in the water, other staff can use ROVs to keep eyes on other areas of the work site, or to fetch tools and parts without a lengthy surfacing process. We profit and grow when we see the potentials unlocked by technological change.
Divers who adapt to the technological innovation coming to the industry by adopting the new tools that ROV technology is making available are going to be able to do more work, to do it better, and to do it safer than they were doing it before. Adding ROVs to an existing dive business requires challenging some ideas about how the business should run, but it’s a change that will pay off.