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Unmanned Ocean Explorers

by Benjamin Sheng

The oceans offer multitudes of bountiful surprises, ranging from walking fish to otherworldly cuttlefish. This should not come as a shock, as oceans not only cover more than two-thirds of Earth’s surface, but also house the vast majority of the world’s life. And while many animals, shipwrecks, and geographic intrigues have been found, there is an abundance left to be discovered. Only 5% of the ocean floor has been mapped in detail, and while over 200,000 aquatic species have been discovered, scientists estimate that this is only a small proportion of all marine life. New species are discovered every day.

Humans have played an overarching role in collecting the data that makes up our understanding of the oceans today. Divers collect samples of both water and organisms, install tracking devices, and explore underwater chasms. However, in the places where we know the least about – in the dark reaches of the Abyssal Zone, for example – human 

exploration is not entirely feasible. While humans in submarines have gone down to areas of the Mariana Trench, the cost of doing so gets in the way of conducting meaningful research. Instead, robots need to be sent to investigate scientific interests. And they unrelentingly have done so, unveiling great wonders – new species, old shipwrecks, and other surprises.

There are many types of unmanned underwater vehicles, but the main categories are Deep Submersible Vehicles (DSVs), Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), and Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASVs). DSVs are designed to explore the deepest areas of the ocean and as a result have powerful hulls capable of withstanding the crushing pressures of that area. Alvin, one of the more famous DSVs, featured a titanium sphere in which a small crew would sit and observe life through a window (recently, more windows were added as part of its renovation). ROVs, as their name suggests, are remotely controlled by operators and often used for more mundane tasks like laying down cables, as the Canadian ROPOS (Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Science) did. AUVs operate in the middle zones of the ocean, relying on instruments to guide their paths and collect data. Some examples of AUVs are the Seaglider, which compresses its hull to alter its depth and can stay in the ocean for months at a time, and “Boaty McBoatFace”, a type of long-range Autosub that has explored Antarctic ice shelves and made important discoveries relating to climate change. Lastly, ASVs stay on the surface of the water and can do so for long stretches of time, recording various types of oceanographic data.

While underwater vehicles can greatly help to further our understanding of the aquatic world, there are concerns that they will harm marine, or even terrestrial, ecosystems. For instance, an underwater deep-sea mining vehicle engaged in drilling could release sediments containing toxic heavy metals

into the environment, which would also disturb sea life. Other unmanned underwater vehicles engaged in studies could also unwittingly interfere in marine ecosystems. As sensory technology becomes better and mining technology becomes safer, underwater activities start to look more and more ethical than their land-based counterparts.

Of course, the field of unmanned underwater vehicles is still up for improvement. Recently, MIT developed a system of autonomous boat-like structures that could coordinate to form larger boats and even bridges. The individual robotic boats would follow a leader and despite acting independently, manage to stay together. Numerous plans for other types of underwater vehicles have also been developed, including squid-like propulsion structures and even fish-like submarines, hoping to utilize the naturally adapted shapes of ocean animals to navigate the oceans more easily. Oceanography continues to grow every day, and unmanned underwater vehicles play a large role in it doing so, giving us a broader view of the workings of our world.

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