Around the beginning of the 20th century, researchers realized that they could use sound waves to “see” underwater.
Unlike radar, sound waves propagate just fine underwater – in fact, they propagate underwater better than they propagate through the air. The first sonar-like devices were used to listen for icebergs; sonar technology advanced enormously during the First World War as a tool to listen for enemy submarines. Sonar still has extensive military uses, but today civilian sonar is the primary area of development.
Although in this post we will talk about “seeing” it should be noted that sonar does not actually produce a direct visual image. Many sonar control suites will translate the sonar data into a visual picture, and high-end sonars actually can produced simulated images that look very much like you are “seeing” what is out there – but the actual data is sound pulses being reflected back. Computers do much of the interpreting of that data stream, making it more accessible to people without advanced training in sonar interpretation.
Most remote-operated vehicles have the ability to carry sonar sets as optional equipment.
ROVs use sonar for a variety of purposes, from mapping the bottom of bodies of water to searching for items in the water.
There are three basic types of sonar available for deployment on an ROV:
- Scanning Sonar
- Multibeam Sonar
- Side-Scanning Sonar
Scanning sonar operates in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a radar dish turning at an airport. The sonar emitter physically rotates, sending out a pulse of sound as it does so, and simultaneously listens for the echoes returning from any objects in the water. The rotational speed of a scanning sonar balances out the time between pulses and the time it takes for a returning pulse to come back to the sonar.
Scanning sonars do not provide a high degree of resolution. They are able to detect large objects (for example, pilings or ships) but lack the discrimination necessary to spot smaller objects, particularly when those objects are on the bottom or next to another object. Because there is only one beam, scanning sonars have no ability to see behind objects; if one object is behind another object in a line to the scanning sonar, the scanning sonar can see only the closer of the two. The strength of the scanning sonar is that it does cover an area of 360 degrees, although only from 10 to 20 degrees above and below the plane of the sonar.