The winter of 2001 marked a critical juncture. It was six months before dives to the Titanic could be safely attempted, and James had to determine whether to proceed or wait another year. "Mike was really, really negative on the idea, but I decided to go for it," the director says. He felt he couldn't afford to wait longer and thought that a fixed deadline would focus the engineering staff at Dark Matter. For his part, Mike was contending with an unending series of design challenges. "It was such an overwhelming set of problems that I had very little confidence that certain parts would be solvable in the time we had," Mike says.
A few weeks before the dives commenced in the summer of 2001, the robots' lithium sulfur dioxode¿based batteries caught fire while being tested in a pressure tank, destroying what was to have been a third robot. Mike wanted to delay the dives, but James found a supplier of another type of lithium battery and pressed ahead.
At the dive site, Jake and Elwood took starring roles with their 2,000-foot tethers, exploring for the first time in about 90 years remote parts of the ships, including the engine room, the firemen's mess hall and the cabins of first-class passengers--even focusing in on a bowler hat, a brass headboard and an intact, upright glass decanter. The images lack the resolution and novel quality of the high-definition, three-dimensional IMAX images, the other major technological innovation of Ghosts of the Abyss. Jake and Elwood's discoveries, however, draw the viewers' interest because of what they convey of the Titanic's mystique. "You actually feel like you're out there in the wreck," Mike says. He remembers his brother piloting the robots with the helicopter stick that had been installed in the Russian submersible from which the robots were launched. "Jim ended up being a cowboy pilot," Mike says. "He was far more aggressive with the system than I was."
One scene in Ghosts of the Abyss reveals the tension that sometimes erupted between the brothers. James contemplates moving one of the robots through a cabin window that is still partially occluded by a shard of glass that could damage the vehicle or cut the data tether. When James declares that he is going to take Jake in, moviegoers can hear Mike pleading with his brother not to do it, ultimately relenting once the bot has negotiated the opening.
The decision to install a new type of battery at the last minute came to haunt the expedition; Elwood's lithium-polymer battery ignited while in the bowels of the ship. James manipulated the remaining robot into the Titanic to perform a rescue operation by hooking a cord to the grill of the dead bot and towing it out. At the surface--on the deck of the Russian scientific vessel the Keldysh, from which the two submarines carrying Jake and Elwood to the Titanic were launched--Mike rebuilt Elwood with a backup battery. During the next dive, the robot caught fire again while it was still mounted on the submarine, endangering the crew. Finally, Mike worked for an 18-hour stretch to adapt a lead-acid gel battery used for devices onboard the mother ship into a power source for Elwood, enabling the expedition to continue.
The bots, now fitted with a new, nonflammable battery that Mike designed, may find service beyond motion pictures. The U.S. Navy has funded Dark Matter to help it assess the technology for underwater recovery operations of ships or aircraft. The bots also have potential for scientific exploration of deep-sea trenches. After traveling to the Titanic and the Bismarck, the team went on to probe mid-Atlantic hydrothermal vents, discovering mollusks in a place where scientists had never encountered them before. As adventure aficionados, the brothers speculate that a descendant of Jake and Elwood might even be toted on a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, to investigate the waters that are suspected to exist below its icy shell. The Cameron siblings, who tinkered with home-built rafts and rockets as children in Ontario near Niagara Falls, hope to be around long enough to witness their robotic twins go from the bottom of the ocean to the depths of space.
This article was originally published with the title The Abyss Transit System.