One of the largest, and safest passenger jets ever made, simply disappears off the radar. Remember Malaysia Air 370? Ever since it disappeared in 2014, countries and companies have been searching for the vanished aircraft. There was a second search, led by the U.S. exploration firm, Ocean Infinity. While the plane was never found, the recovery effort had an unforeseen benefit, the greatest mapping of the ocean floor in history. 96,000 square miles of detailed seabed data collected with extraordinary speed. But we know only about five to 7% of our ocean floor, the rest is not known at the moment in a detailed way. So, we know less about the ocean than we know about the surface of Mars.
New underwater drones are changing that. They have found wrecks, collected valuable oceanographic data, and uncovered new natural resources. Mapping the ocean can be crucial in understanding the mechanisms of climate change, meaning that in the push to map the oceans of the world, the clock is ticking. There’s a company in Houston that is a bunch of former NASA engineers.
They came into the marine sector because they wanted a challenge. They said, “Look, space is a really inert environment. We know where the equipment’sat, we can talk to it, and we don’t have to deal with pressure.” That’s Josh Broussard, he’s the CTO of OceanInfinity, one of the companies that searched for Malaysia Air 370 and is on the cutting edge of underwater drones, which are often referred to as AUVs. An AUV is an AutonomousUnderwater Vehicle. It’s a robot designed to operate underwater, completely independent of human supervision. These are vehicles that we actually design and build in our lab. They can be used to measure the quality of the ocean water or the bathymetry of the ocean floor.
Dan Stilwell and Stefano Brizzolara, run the AUV R&D Department of Virginia Tech. AUV technology is relatively new but carries a lot of advantages over traditional, manned submarines. Because AUVs don’t have to house human bodies, they can be smaller, more efficient, and can go deeper. We can survey as much as two and a half kilometers wide per AUV, so we can cover a lot of ground, and we can take sonar imagery down to three to five centimeters, But the average ocean depth is over 10,000 feet. That means AUVs involved in bathymetry, or search and recovery missions has to be incredibly tough.
The vehicle has to be designed to withstand tremendous pressure’s in the deep ocean. There’s no light, so if you want to take a picture, you’ve gotta bring your own illumination. The other challenge is communication. [whooshing] The deep ocean is pitch black. There’s no internet, no cell service, no GPS, and with ocean currents, AUVs aren’t able to maintain fixed predictable positions. Once you send an AUV on a mission, for all practical purposes, it goes dark. Underwater communication is done acoustically with sound. The bandwidth is really low so that the amount of information you can send through the water column is really, really small.
What you’ve got is like worse than the ’90s dial-up internet by orders of magnitude, and you’re trying to send really complex information about where they’re located in a 3D space. But new AUV technology aims to script this limitation by using swarming, also known as collaborative autonomy.
We could program a bunch of robots to operate at the same time, but collaborative autonomy is getting them to work cooperatively, to share information, to jointly make decisions about what to do next. We can mount some very sophisticated sensors on board in order to estimate their position. If AUVs collaborate together, your spatial awareness improves, your navigation improves, you could re-task a vehicle based on information that another one may have collected. Many fixate on space as the last place for true exploration, and the means by which we’ll save our species or spur the greatest innovations. Yet our own oceans, present daunting challenges, and countless unknowns.
It is the final dark frontier of our planet. The Earth’s surface is 70% water, and the oceans hold over 90% of its life, but its health is in serious jeopardy. Biodiversity is falling, plastic is building up. That means that ocean mapping could be crucial to understanding climate change and how to protect those on land from hurricanes, sea-level rise, and other threats. Organizations like Seabed 2030 are using AUV technology to accelerate ocean mapping.
They aim to bring together all available bathymetric data to produce the definitive map of the world ocean floor, by 2030 and make it available to everyone. Soon, we may have a vastly different understandings of our largest natural resource. In fact, our future may depend on it. Thanks for watching it. If you enjoyed this video, give us a like, and follow Freethink for more great stories about the people and ideas that are changing the world.