One of the most exciting areas of development for underwater remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) is their use in marine research. For decades, purpose-built (and generally large) ROVs like POODLE (the first real ROV, deployed in 1953) were on the forefront of oceanographic research work. Marine scientists did not generally use commercially-developed mass-produced ROVs until relatively recently – mainly because the mass-produced ROVs didn’t exist yet! They exist now, and the unique combination of affordability and standardization ROVs offer is now helping researchers push back the frontiers of knowledge in a number of exciting research fields.
One key area of research is the field of robotics itself – coordinating fleets of tiny ROVs is a new and unprecedented challenge for scientists at sea. Even more challenging is processing the terabytes of data that even a relatively modest quantity of ROVs can collect in a short period of time. A 2015 expedition by the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Falkor to the remote Scott Reef in the Timor Sea, led by a team of University of Sydney scientists, deployed an eclectic flotilla of robotic vehicles, including gliders, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), autonomous surface vessels (ASVs) and Lagrangian floats, and autonomous surface vessels (ASVs). The AUVs were used to take water measurements at different depths, the ASVs and gliders collected data on surface conditions, and the floats measured currents, water salinity and temperature, and other data.
Just in visual imagery alone, the Falkor collected some 400,000 images over a two-week period, about a terabyte every day. To gain insight into the meaning of the data they had collected, the team developed a web-based tool named Squidle, which crowdsources data analysis and lets the general public help teach computers how to interpret visual imagery. (You can learn more about Squidle at https://squidle.acfr.usyd.edu.au/) Another development of note from the Falkor expedition was the creation of a web-based tool to allow researchers to visualize the known positions of an entire fleet of ROVs in real-time using any Internet-connected device, such as a PC or smartphone.
Oceanic research on climate is one of the most critically important areas of science operating today. The challenge of global warming is tightly bound to our understanding of the Earth’s global ocean, and more visually spectacular catastrophic events like tsunamis and hurricanes emphasize the pressing need for deeper understanding of the oceanic climate. As one example, a Wave Glider ROV was collecting routine environmental data in the South China Sea in July of 2014 when it encountered Typhoon Rammasun, a lethal ocean storm with 10-meter high waves and winds approaching 200 miles per hour. The Wave Glider, tiny yet extremely rugged, rode out the storm without trouble and collected amazing data about the behavior of the ocean in response to the event. Fleets of ROVs could collect many times that amount of information, allowing unprecedented progress in areas like storm prediction and tracking. It’s not just data that can be collected – ROVs can retrieve water samples from anywhere in the ocean. (Aquabotix offers a water sample collector on the Endura line.)
The use of ROVs to monitor the health and size of fish populations has been under development for quite some time in the aquaculture field. Now researchers are drawing lessons from that work and applying it to help save the Great Barrier Reef. The GBR, a collection of almost 2000 reefs scattered across more than 130,000 square miles of ocean, faces a number of threats, including climate change and water quality problems, but scientists agree that the incursion of the Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS), a nightmare coral predator, is the Reef’s greatest immediate challenge. Scientists estimate that in the last twenty years, COTS population explosions have led to the destruction of about 40 percent of the Reef’s coral.
Monitoring the COTS populations was an important step, but monitoring alone can’t get anything done. Australians have operated hunting vessels to try to slow the advance of COTS populations, but even killing 400,000 COTS per year, as one anti-COTS diving team has done, is barely holding the COTS threat at a status quo level. Robotics researchers at the Queensland University of Technology, supported by a $750,000 AUS grant from the Google Impact Challenge Australia, have developed an ROV capable of hunting down and annihilating COTS. The prototype, dubbed “COTSBot,” is capable of operating autonomously, cruising a few feet above the coral reef using five integrated thrusters, scanning the surface of the coral and looking for COTS going about their nefarious business. When the robot spots a COTS – with a 99% accuracy rate – it swoops down and uses a robotic arm to inject the creature with a 20 ml vinegar solution, which kills it instantly. By mass deploying COTSBots in threatened areas of the reef, scientists hope not to just stem the incursion of the COTS, but to keep their population down to a manageable level.
The scientific work, both theoretical and applied, that oceangoing ROVs can support is critically important to both the health of the global environment, and to our growing ability to explore and understand the 95+ percent of the oceans that have not yet been genuinely explored. As always, human researchers and explorers will be irreplaceable in those efforts, but the addition of robotic assistance and tools in the form of ROVs will make their work vastly more effective, affordable, and effective.