Exploring the Underwater World with Robotics

July 16, 2018

The underwater world is fascinating to most of us: the calming sounds of the water; the beauty of the contrasting colors; the amazing animal and plant life; the mystery of the deep waters - it's all intriguing. Although, with an average depth of 12,100 feet, we can't very well just jump in and see all there is to see. There are limiting factors including pressure/depth, temperature, visibility, and of course, air. I was fortunate to attend a Professional Development Workshop recently at the Infinity Science Center in Pearlington, Mississippi, that focused on ROV's (remotely operated vehicle) and how they are used to explore the underwater world. As an added bonus, we designed and built our own ROV's, and then that afternoon, we were introduced to the SeaPerch program. SeaPerch is an innovative underwater robotics program that equips teachers and students with the resources they need to build an underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) in an in-school or out-of-school setting. Students build the ROV from a kit comprised of low-cost, easily accessible parts, following a curriculum that teaches basic engineering and science concepts with a marine engineering theme.

Beginning with a brief history of ocean exploration, our instructor, Dustin, discussed with us the limiting factors affecting ocean exploration which have led to the use of ROV's. Pressure/depth, temperature, visibility and air all limit humans from exploring much of the ocean, even with diving suits. As stated earlier, the average depth of the ocean is 12,100 feet with the deepest depth of the ocean located beneath the western Pacific Ocean in the southern end of the Mariana Trench, which runs about 300 kilometers southwest of the U.S. territorial island of Guam. Named Challenger Deep after the British HMS Challenger whose crew first plumbed the depths of the trench in 1875, it is approximately 36,200 feet (nearly 7 miles) deep! Because of its extreme depth, the trench is cloaked in perpetual darkness and the temperature is just a few degrees above freezing. The water pressure at the bottom of the trench is a crushing eight tons per square inch—or about a thousand times the standard atmospheric pressure at sea level. Check out this informative video that takes you down in an underwater ROV to explore the depths of the ocean.

In 1960, two men, Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss Engineer Jacques Piccard, used a U.S. Navy submersible, a bathyscaphe called the Trieste, to descend to the bottom of the Challenger Deep. After a five-hour descent, they could only spend a short 20 minutes at the bottom before a window started cracking. During this 20 minutes, it was too cloudy from silt being stirred up from their descent for them to even take photographs. The only other man to reach the bottom of the Challenger Deep was James Cameron, a Hollywood film director. Cameron and his team, including Don Walsh who first visited the bottom on the Trieste, worked for seven years building the Deep Sea Challenger. On March 26, 2012, Cameron was able to make and complete the historic dive in which he was able to take video and even collect a sample from the bottom of the ocean floor. Click here to watch a National Geographic Documentary on James Cameron's dive to the Challenger Deep.

We know more about the surface of the moon than we do the ocean floor. Thanks to ROV's, we are starting to get a better idea of the topography of the ocean floor through exploration and even finding them vital in terms of salvage, as well. For example, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) located the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 using their new imaging vehicle, Argo, on its first deep-sea cruise. Argo was basically a tow sled that was towed from the Research Vessel Knorr and used to capture extensive photographs with the 35-mm camera system ANGUS (Acoustically Navigated Geological Underwater Survey).

In 1986, WHOI used the research vessel, Atlantis II as the operations center and returned to the site of the Titanic with the Human Occupied Vehicle Alvin (a 3-person submersible), Jason Jr. (a remotely operated vehicle), and Angus (the towed imaging sled). Alvin can take 2 scientists and a pilot as deep as 14,764 feet. Able to maneuver in rugged topography or rest on the bottom of the seafloor, Alvin was equipped with special lights and cameras mounted on the exterior for visibility and photo documentation. Jason Jr. was a small Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) attached to Alvin by a 300 foot fiber optic cable and controlled by a pilot inside Alvin. Jason Jr. was small enough to explore places Alvin could not fit. ANGUS was the only vehicle used in both the discovery expedition in 1985 and the return mission to the Titanic in 1986. In April of 2014, I was fortunate enough to attend a GLOBE Training at WHOI where I was able to take the above photos of a true-to-size replica of Alvin. I was amazed then, and still today, the technology put into it, as well as, the size – can you imagine two people in there?  

In addition to exploration and salvage, ROV's are also crucial in figuring out what species are where and how they live. Thanks to ROV's we can observe and study the effects we have on these deep water organisms either directly or indirectly. Not only do we not know much about the ocean floor, we also know very little about deep ocean organisms. 

As you can see, we can learn a lot from these ROV's, and it is important to continue developing and improving the technology. Dustin provided us with pvc pipe, connectors, floaters, motors and remote controls to design and build our own underwater ROV's in the class. When designing our ROV's, we had to really think about where to put the motors to make them go side to side and up/down. We also had to test and determine the best position for our floats in order to keep it level. Our designs were crucial to how our ROV's worked. After designing and building, we had to put them in one of the tanks and be able to manuever our ROV up, down, left, and right. This activity really made us think about all the aspects and how to achieve the desired end result.

For our afternoon session, David Young with SeaPerch introduced us to the SeaPerch Program. Continuing to develop and improve the technology is one of SeaPerch's main goals. Having seen a decrease in college enrollments and careers in science and engineering, the Navy is attempting to change that by offering a broad range of STEM education and outreach programs like SeaPerch. Started in 1997, SeaPerch is a fun, hands-on educational tool about science, engineering and discovery that can be integrated into the curriculum or used for an after school program. SeaPerch provides kits and resources to be used in teaching students in middle school and high school, plus there are competitions. This year's International SeaPerch Challenge was held June 1-3 at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts. To advance to the International SeaPerch Challenge, you must earn a space by winning a properly registered Qualifying Competition. To learn more about all aspects of the competition, please click here

One of the best things about Sea Perch for teachers is that there is a teacher training program. There are two methods of training: online training or on-site training (based on availability). The SeaPerch website says that CEU's and/or professional development credits may also be offered. Clickhere for a link to the Teacher Tools page complete with lesson plans and additional teacher resources.

There are also some great opportunities for academically talented students who are showing a real interest in science and engineering. A couple of internship programs available through the Office of Naval Research Science and Technology are the the Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program (SEAP) and the Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program (NREIP). I saw on both websites that they will begin taking applications on August 20, 2018, for students who would like to apply. The SEAP is for rising 10th-12th graders and requires that a student be 16 years old at the start of the internship and a U.S. citizen; permanent residents will be considered by some of the participating laboratories. SEAP offers a competitive stipend with new students receiving $3,300 and returning interns receiving $3,800 for a continuous 8 weeks during the summer conducting research at a DoN laboratory.

The NREIP Program is for college students who are U.S. citizens; permanent residents will be considered by some of the participating laboratories. Students must be enrolled at a 4-year U.S. college or university deemed accredited by the U.S. Department of Education. Students attending 2-year colleges who are majoring in a field of research that is of interest to participating laboratories and who meet the credit-hour requirements may be eligible at a laboratory's discretion. NREIP is for university sophomores, juniors, seniors or graduate students (freshmen are eligible to apply if they have reached the credit level of a sophomore before starting the internship) who are enrolled in a program of study that is relevant to the research interests of the participating laboratories. Stipends for NREIP interns start at $5,400 while returning interns receive $8,100 and graduate students receive $10,800 for a continuous 10 weeks during the summer conducting research at a DoN laboratory. 

Robotics play a huge part in our scientific world. Knowing what opportunities are out there and how to access them can make a difference. Underwater robotics add another dimension to robotics that may be fascinating to some students who are interested in the ocean, but looking for something more on the engineering side. The ocean floor is “the limit” for researchers – and as we all know, that's 36,000+ feet below the water's surface with so much still to be discovered! 

Stephanie Miller

With over 25 years experience, Stephanie serves as a senior copywriter, social media director, and senior editor for Science Scene. Stephanie is always on the lookout for new educational and STEM-related opportunities and technology.