Humans have visited the very bottom of the ocean--the Marianas Trench in the western Pacific, nearly seven miles below the wavetops--only a few times. The first expedition took place in 1960, when Jacques Piccard set the U.S. Navy submersible Trieste down on the murky floor; the next occurred some 35 years later, when Japan's Kaiko, a multimillion-dollar remotely operated vehicle (ROV), returned briefly to that black realm during several dives. The extreme depths and pressures of the earth's least-explored territory have kept scientists from studying the ocean's abyss up close. An innovative attempt may soon change that.
Engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Navy have begun developing an undersea craft that is designed to do meaningful science at the lowest depths routinely and cost-effectively. The device, explains Woods Hole researcher Andy Bowen, will be a hybrid ROV; it will combine the capabilities of a fully autonomous undersea robot with those of a craft piloted from the surface via a thin optical-communications fiber, the same technology used to guide torpedoes. The one-ton machine and its support equipment are to fit into a pair of standard shipping containers. Thus, the system is intended to be sufficiently compact, lightweight and easily deployed from standard oceanographic vessels, thereby avoiding the need for a dedicated mother ship. These features will make the machine flexible and cheap enough not only for deep diving but for other, traditional survey and sampling jobs. Managers expect that the $5.5-million project, which is being funded by the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will be completed in four years.
This article was originally published with the title Down to the Deep.