The world’s oceans are the last frontier for discovery on Earth. They have gone largely unexplored throughout history not for lack of curiosity, but due to their vast size and crushing depths. Pioneering work done by ocean explorers, marine researchers, archaeologists and oceanographers over the last few decades have brought us much closer to understanding what lies beneath the ocean, but there is much left to discover. Marine research is one area of ocean exploration which has driven the development of underwater viewing devices, from bathyspheres in the 1930’s to Human Occupied Vehicles (HOVs) such as Woods Hole’s Alvin commissioned in the 1960’s, to today’s most modern Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) such as Woods Hole’s Nereus, which reached a depth of over 35,000 feet in the Mariana Trench in 2009. In each case, the goal has been to go deeper and capture more photos and video of the unknown depths. The dangers of deep water exploration have led most researchers to rely on remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) which allow explorers to do their work from the safety of the surface. Included below are three amazing discoveries made by marine researchers using underwater technology.
1. Discovery of Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vents
(photo credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
In 1977 Richard Von Herzen and Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution discovered hydrothermal vents for the first time during an expedition to explore the Galapagos Rift. The team was measuring deep ocean temperatures by towing a research sled deep under water, and when the temperature reading spiked, they hadn’t just discovered the existence of hydrothermal vents, but to their surprise, they found a vast ecosystem of deep sea animals living around the vents. Like a deep sea oasis in the middle of a deep, dark desert, the hydrothermal vents provided a constant source of hydrogen sulfide, ejected from the earth’s crust through fissures and used by industrious bacteria to create energy by means of chemosythesis. By contrast, most life on earth gets its energy by means of photosynthesis.
2. Discovery of Bone-eating (Osedax) Worms
(Photo credit: Monterey Bay Research Institute)
In 2002 the Monterey Bay Research Institute discovered a new genus of deep-sea worms, dubbed “Zombie Worms” located in the Monterey Canyon. Osedax worms were found colonizing whale falls, the carcasses of dead whales which have settled to the deep ocean floor to decompose. Osedax worms embed themselves in whale bones and bore holes by secreting acid to reach nutrients within the bones. Osedax lack a mouth and a stomach, and completely rely on symbiotic bacteria to extract nutrients from the whale bones. Whale falls are an uncommon occurrence on the ocean floor, but for the most opportunistic and prolific microscopic life, no opportunity is left unused.
3. Discovery of Ghostlike Octopod
(Photo Credit: NOAA)
In 2016 the NOAA Okeanos Explorer discovered what is thought to be a new species of octopod which resembles a ghost, with a translucent white body and stubby arms. The photos and videos of this discovery are just one of dozens captured during the Hohonu Moana Hawaii Deep Water Expedition. Missions such as this create so much data that marine biologists will be analyzing them for years for new discoveries. What’s most exciting is that modern oceanic exploration has become a group activity, by utilizing telepresence and live streaming, experts and the public can drop in on underwater discoveries while they are happening, paving the way for the next generation of explorers to get involved and make a difference.
Each of these three underwater research missions relied on deep sea exploration technology, specifically, ROVs equipped with cameras. Modern day marine researchers have the tools to dive deep and capture stunning images of what lies on the ocean floor. With every new mission comes a chance for new underwater discoveries.
Environmental research is a vital practice for ensuring our lakes, streams and oceans remain clean and healthy. Collecting water samples in the field is often one of the best ways to monitor water quality. Researchers commonly test for the presence of harmful bacteria, algae blooms, dissolved metals, and agricultural and well as industrial pollutants. Man-made substances such pharmaceuticals and micro plastics also appear in water samples, and the first step in understanding their environmental impact is understanding where they are coming from.
Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) as well as autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) provide the means to efficiently and accurately capture a series of water samples, along a pre-determined route, at specific GPS coordinates, and even at specific depths. The concentrations of target substances can then be mapped, analyzed over time, and traced back to their source. As with any scientific study, the conclusion is only as good as the data, and ROVs equipped with water samplers give the accuracy and repeatability that are necessary.
How a Water Sampler Works:
Water samplers are simple. They consist of one or more tubular chambers which are open on both ends to allow water to flow freely through it. When the operator triggers the mechanism, the tube is sealed on both ends by a rubber stopper which snaps into place, forming a water-tight chamber. Good water samplers contain multiple chambers, which can be cycled into position and activated, like the chambers of a revolver. By triggering multiple samples at known coordinates or known depths, the water quality data is easier to plot and analyze. ROV’s take the guess work out of this process by providing the depth, heading, and GPS location of each sample as it’s triggered. Through a suite of other on-board sensors, ROVs can simultaneously collect information about water temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, and many other parameters which give a well-rounded set of data points to connect to each water sample.
The Center for Marine Robotics at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution recently held their 3rd Annual Entrepreneurs Showcase & Leadership Forum from July 20-21, 2017 on the Quissett Campus overlooking Martha’s Vineyard and the Nantucket Sound. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a global leader in ocean research, exploration and education – and the Center for Marine Robotics is the group at WHOI responsible for revolutionizing ocean robotics.
The Entrepreneurs Showcase & Leadership forum kicked off with the formal opening of Dunkworks, a marine robotics maker space which pays homage to Skunk Works, the experimental design laboratory operated by Lockheed Martin which brought us such aircraft as the U-2, Blackbird and F-22 Raptor. Dunkworks provides a wide range of additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping equipment to quickly test and iterate new marine robotics products. Woods Hole wants to make sure that all marine robotics innovators have access to the tools they need to bring their ideas to life.
Next up was the Entrepreneurs Showcase, a collection of marine robotics companies and products on display is the LOSOS Highbay building. Aquabotix showcased our Endura ROV and AquaLens Connect Underwater Camera System alongside many other leaders in the marine robotics space. The showcase provided guests and exhibitors a unique opportunity to speak with other experts in the marine robotics field. The showcase concluded with a networking social and lively conversation on the future of marine robotics.
Day two focused solely on the Leadership Forum, which saw an introduction from WHOI Marine Robotics Director Dr. Jim Bellingham, followed by session speakers and discussion panels on the Emerging Defense Market, Flash Talks, Future Markets and Start-Up Funding. Key trends heard throughout the day included the notion that marine robotics is still rapidly evolving; vehicles are becoming smaller, smarter, more reliable, and less expensive. Underwater vehicle-to-vehicle communication technologies are still in development, and that the future of unmanned systems includes swarms of networked vehicles blanketing the ocean.
The Center for Marine Robotics put on a great event, and once again has demonstrated their commitment as leaders in marine robotics. Thanks to all of the staff involved in the Entrepreneur’s Showcase & Leadership Forum.
Photo credit: WHOI CMR
The Aquabotix Endura was used for student demonstrations last week by the Advanced Studies and Leadership Program (ASLP) at Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, MA. The Advanced Studies & Leadership Program (ASLP) provides a 3 week summer college-like residential experience that emphasizes leadership and development, and project oriented instruction in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) areas and the humanities for more than 200 high achieving students from the Cape Cod Collaborative member districts. The students are rising 8th and 9th graders.
Mr. C. Eben Franks – a noted ocean explorer, researcher and ROV instructor for ASLP conducted demos of the Aquabotix Endura 100 ROV on four afternoons: 5-6 July and 10-11 July 2017. On each of those days, fifty students were given a brief description of ROV technology and how they are used for a wide range of underwater tasks. After an introduction to the controls, each student then had the opportunity to handle the tether and pilot the ROV in the pool at Mass Maritime Academy during each of the two hour demos. Additionally, 75 students had taken the MATE Center-sponsored ROV construction and operation course prior to the in-pool demos of the Endura 100. These students were particularly delighted to have to opportunity to pilot a real ROV.
Gil Newton, Director of ASLP was quoted as saying: “ We are phenomenally appreciative of the generous support that Aquabotix provided the students in our program. The excitement and eagerness was palpable as each successive group talked about their experience with the other students. For them to have the chance to operate a real ROV is unique and many of them described it as the high point of their 3 week ASLP experience.” C. Eben Franks added: “ The Aquabotix Endura 100 worked flawlessly, right out of the box. It was easy to transport and set up each day. The MMA Cadets who were assisting with ASLP likewise had lots of time to operate it and learn about its capabilities firsthand. It never failed to put a smile on their faces.”
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.
There’s just something about robots.
Kids today grew up with robots represented in half the TV shows, books, and movies they were exposed to. The older generation remembers a childhood of R2-D2 and C3P0 – and their parents, in turn, remember Robbie the Robot, Klaatu, and other spectacular pulp-era automatons. Robots immediately seize the attention and fire the imagination of children in a way no other technology can.
We recently attended the Southcoast MA Mini Makers Faire, held near our Massachusetts headquarters, and saw first-hand how blazingly excited kids got with exposure to robots. Fortunately, the beneficial influence of studying robotics goes way beyond maker’s fairs and trade shows. Robotics may, in fact, be the key to inspiring the next generation of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) researchers, workers, and entrepreneurs.
There is a developing crisis in the STEM field. Employment analysts expect that by 2018 there will be 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs in the United States alone – and new STEM jobs are desperately needed. In fact, STEM fields will grow almost twice as fast as conventional areas of employment in this decade. Higher education is doing its part, but the fact is that inspiring young kids to go into STEM fields is the key to ensuring that the American workforce is up to the challenge of dealing with a high-tech economy.
And that may well be where the robots come in. Research shows that engagement with STEM concepts in early childhood and elementary school is practical – the kids can grasp the ideas – and effective. Specifically, out-of-school activities that engage the attention of young kids are very likely to create a lifelong pattern of seeking new knowledge and activity in those same fields. Kids who do something educational *as a hobby on their own time* are clearly hooked. Robotics, as it happens, is an area where even very young kids can do meaningful work, and they will fight to get at the materials and lessons they need to do it.
One area of strong fit between robots and early childhood education is that the elementary school period is a time when kids are having to learn reading and abstract symbol manipulation skills – critical skills to have, obviously – but what they really want to do is to be hands-on, kinetic, to draw and to shape and to create physical objects. Working with robots encourages both the abstract skills that they need (but often aren’t terribly excited by) and expressing those skills with hands-on tinkering and mechanical work. Most of the math and science education in the lower grades is entirely theoretical – robotics allows kids to put what they are learning to direct, immediate application.
Fortunately, the robotics industry is well aware of how critically important it is to get the youngest new learners excited about robots. There is a vast wealth of resources available to schools and educational programs for designing, creating, and deploying robotics projects. Many of these programs are cast as competitions, such as the Wonder League Robotics Competition, where kids from 6 to 12 can compete in a series of events by sending in videos of their robots successfully completing a series of challenges. The Wonder League events focus on programming. The Vex IQ Challenge, for elementary and middle schoolers, focuses more on robot operations, while the First Lego League Jr., for kids age 6 to 10, is naturally all about the building. There are many other programs and events in a similar vein.
Class time in schools is, of course, a natural incubation point for STEM education, and robotics works well as the framework in which to teach a wide variety of STEM concepts. Teachers report that teaching robotics requires kids to look at complex systems made up of multiple parts, to design and connect those systems themselves, which teaches real-world problem solving. The kids are, of course, highly motivated because they are learning by doing, rather than by listening to a teacher talk. And kids who learn best on their own can do so even outside of the school environment with consumer systems like Lego MindStorms, a fully-functioning robotic development kit using Lego blocks for implementation.
No single concept is going to be a magic bullet that solves our shortage of STEM workers. It will take a lot of different ideas, and a lot of different initiatives, to get to where we need to be. It’s clear, though, that robotics is an area with vast potential to inspire young minds to innovate and design the world of the future.
One of the most exciting areas of innovation and growth in underwater vehicles is the development of underwater vehicles for the secondary education market – that is, middle school and high school students. These autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) aren’t as sophisticated as modern commercial craft, but they teach young people the basics of designing, building, and operating underwater vehicles in an affordable way. Underwater vehicles aimed at the high school education system (or the individual hobbyist) can be purchased in kit form for very modest amounts of money.
The SeaGlide is a glider, a unique form of untethered AUV. Gliders are autonomous winged robot vehicles which don’t have a conventional propulsion system – no propeller, in other words. Instead, they move by altering their buoyancy – taking in or pumping out water – and altering their center of gravity. Each change in buoyancy causes the craft to rise and sink. With each cycle of rising and falling, the glider’s wings cause a pressure differential which generates forward velocity – the craft literally glides through the water. This is an extremely energy-efficient, albeit slow, form of propulsion – in 2009 an autonomous glider called Scarlet Knight made a 221-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
The SeaGlide doesn’t have that kind of endurance, but it still can teach young science and engineering students a great deal about AUVs. SeaGlide kits come with everything needed to build an autonomous underwater glider, complete with temperature and pressure sensors. There is also a complete curriculum, covering electronics, soldering, programming using the Arduino Pro Mini computers that control the SeaGlide, building the servo-driven motor that powers the SeaGlide, and more. Since each SeaGlide kit costs less than $250, it is an accessible learning tool for students everywhere.
(You can learn more about SeaGlide at www.seaglide.net.)
Students interested in a more conventional ROV might want to look at the SeaPerch program. SeaPerch is a curriculum and kit combination that allows students to build an ROV from low-cost, readily-available parts. The SeaPerch curriculum is very thorough, covering ship and submarine design, buoyancy, propulsion, soldering, tool usage, electronics, waterproofing, the physics of underwater motion, career possibilities in underwater industries, and much more. Students learn practical engineering techniques and principles in the process of building their own ROV – and they get to design the ROV themselves, since the SeaPerch is a concept and a kit, not a specific formal design.
SeaPerch is more than just an ROV kit, however. The program offers training to teachers (“teaching the teachers”) including continuing education credits for free one and 1.5 day training events, as well as providing free online training. There is also a nationwide network of competitive districts for SeaPerch Challenges, allowing students to compete with their vehicles in head-to-head matchups with other schools, testing vehicle performance, design innovation and quality, build technique, and more. SeaPerch kits cost less than $200 apiece, with an optional $250 tool kit for schools which may not have things like soldering irons and power drills.
(You can learn more about SeaPerch at www.seaperch.org.)
As cool as they are, SeaPerch and SeaGlide are just the tip of the underwater vehicle iceberg. Students interested in learning more about a career in underwater technology should check out MATE, the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center, a national organization dedicated to advancing marine technical education and preparing the future marine technology workforce. MATE sponsors and runs national-level ROV competitions, and they also offer on-board internship programs on research vessels operated by the US Coast Guard, the Ocean Exploration Trust, and University National Oceanographic Laboratory System.
MATE has comprehensive information on college-level marine technology programs, scholarships, and internships, and they offer faculty development workshops for teachers and professors of marine science. MATE also publishes “Underwater Robotics: Science, Design & Fabrication”, the gold standard textbook in the building of ROVs and AUVs, and provides free guides and tutorials on constructing a number of more advanced ROVs.
(You can learn more about MATE’s extensive program offerings at www.marinetech.org.)