Autonomous vehicles dig deep for oceanographic data

Unmanned oceanography projects are becoming increasingly common as autonomous vehicles become more sophisticated and data collection becomes more efficient. Two projects of this type in Antarctica are making the most of the latest hardware and software developments.

Last November, a team of scientists from Australia, the UK and the US, known as the



SeaBED team, released high-resolution 3D maps of the continent’s sea ice. SeaBED, which is basically an underwater drone, mapped sea ice from underneath the surface of the seafloor, resulting in accurate measurements of the ice thickness in areas that cannot be accessed through conventional means. Older technologies merely allowed researchers to look down at the seafloor.

SeaBED’s ability to collect data from places that were inaccessible until now could go a long way to help climate scientists study the Antarctic ice sheets, and may help them to understand why the amount of ice has increased in certain areas and melted in others. The SeaBED is six feet long and weighs just under 226 kilograms.

Dr. Guy Williams of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) explained the importance of this accomplishment, “The full 3D topography of the underside of the ice provides a richness of new information about the structure of sea ice and the processes that created it. This is key to advancing our models, particularly in showing the differences between Arctic and Antarctic sea ice.”

The underwater robot, openROV, which shares some of the features of the GoPro, is another inexpensive and lightweight innovation that is equipped with LED lights, 3 thrusters and lasers for scaling and distance measurements, in addition to 1080p HD video recording technology.

Another lightweight and low-cost submersible with cutting-edge features is the underwater robot openROV. It maneuvers with three thrusters and comes equipped with LED lighting and 1080p HD video recording capabilities, like a GoPro, as well as lasers for both scaling and distance measurements. The openROV, which costs less than $1,000, gets its name from open source tech, as it was created by a community of citizen ocean explorers, and GitHub hosts a repository of codes for customizations and DIY hacking.

Christopher Sims, a certified professional archaeologist and geographic information system (GIS) specialist, said, “Price is probably the biggest obstacle to science right now, especially when it’s facing public or even grant funding. When you bring open access into the equation, you bring down the price and widen your options in ways that can be molded to adapt to a specific problem or project to explore very specific questions better than traditional methods. We have the equipment and the process of management, but the challenge is to go out and get the data.”

Underwater technologies such as SeaBED and openROV, along with space technologies such as PhoneSat, allow researchers and explorers to carry out valuable projects on tight budgets, despite government austerity measures and corporate cost cutting.


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Tracy Venkatesh

Tracy Venkatesh

Tracy Venkatesh has spent twenty years working and interacting with a socioeconomically diverse population in both the private and public sectors, and has held positions in multiple verticals including content development, healthcare, customer relations management, defense and law enforcement.

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