Mystic – The Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, based at the Mystic Seaport Museum, developed technology that enabled a pilot at its facility in Quonset Point, RI, last month to operate an underwater vehicle in the Florida Keys – 1,600 miles and more than a mile below the surface.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the development this week and reported that GFOE’s technology meant there was only a 1.25 second delay with transmissions, even though signals traveled a total of 44 000 miles from remotely operated vehicle (ROV), to satellite, to Rhode Island and back.
Using so-called telepresence technology, NOAA said during the 2022 shakedown cruise of its ship Okeanos Explorer, a Rhode Island GFOE pilot “skillfully piloted” an underwater vehicle over a field of rocks in a previously unexplored canyon in the Florida Straits. GFOE engineers were aboard the Okeanos Explorer to launch and recover GFOE’s ROV, called Deep Discoverer, which can take photos and videos and collect samples from the bottom.
NOAA said telepresence technology has been “a game-changer for deep-sea exploration”.
“It changed who could participate, and when, how and from where they could do it,” the agency said. “We first used it to engage scientists from shore in real time, then we used it to invite the public to explore the ocean depths, and finally we used it to conduct mapping from the shore.”
The challenge with the technology has been to reduce the time period, or latency, required to transmit video and other inputs from the ROV to shore, and then the instructions back to the ROV when the pilot on shore sees what the vehicle is seeing.
GFOE project manager Melissa Ryan pointed out that a delay of several seconds could cause problems for the vehicle to perform its tasks.
GFOE President Dave Lovalvo said it took “considerable work” by GFOE and Verizon engineers to refine the software to reduce latency.
Last year, GFOE tested the technology aboard its Yogi underwater vehicle as it explored Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming, but was controlled by a pilot in Rhode Island. He took that development and transferred it to the Okeanos Explorer.
“Most of the R&D (research and development) took place in Yellowstone,” Lovalvo said.
GFOE also developed the ability to operate its research vessel Annie in autonomous mode, which allowed it to automatically follow Yogi during a dive.
Lovalvo said there are several benefits to being able to operate a vehicle remotely.
First, he said berths on research vessels such as the Okeanos Explorer are in high demand as scientists try to find one to do their jobs. He said having one or two pilots ashore frees up space. Additionally, he said being able to work ashore reduces pilot stress, as others can share the workload.
NOAA, meanwhile, said piloting ROVs ashore provides opportunities for engineers ashore who might not be able to go to sea and for training new ROV engineers.
Later this month, a new exhibit will open at Mystic Seaport that will showcase GFOE’s work, including its pivotal role in the February discovery of the wreck of the only whaler known to have sunk in the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors will be able to watch a live broadcast of GFOE’s May Expedition with NOAA, titled “Valor in the Atlantic,” on an 85-inch monitor.
This expedition will explore historic wrecks from the American Civil War, such as the battleship USS Monitor, as well as wrecks from World War I and the Battle of the Atlantic from World War II, during which German submarines raided Allied merchant shipping, resulting in a large number of World War II shipwrecks along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The remote-controlled vehicles will also film the wide variety of fish that inhabit the wrecks to help determine the importance of the wrecks as habitats for marine life.