Exploring the Depth of the Ocean

ROV Jason

ROV Jason

In this week’s episode, ATETV was at the MATE ROV competition in San Diego, where we heard from students who were busy designing and crafting remotely operated vehicles. This led us to wonder, just what is an ROV made of and what are these underwater robots used for?

Remotely operated vehicles can plumb 3,000 to 12,000 feet below the ocean – depths that would be far too difficult and dangerous for human divers to access — and were initially developed by the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s for use in deep-sea rescue operations and recovery of objects from the ocean floor. Ranging in size from the proverbial breadbox to a full-size minivan, the unmanned devices are typically constructed of aluminum and titanium and painted in high-visibility yellow. They are outfitted with a special substance to ensure buoyancy.

The ROVs are tethered to ships, enabling a human controller to be located above water where a series of communications cables, and energy sources are housed. At a minimum, the robotics contain a camera or other visual device that enables them to “see” underwater, but many of today’s ROVs are also outfitted with a wide variety of sophisticated tools. Today’s robots are also generally equipped with hydraulic “arms” that enable the human operators to work long-distance, similar to the way surgeons use laparoscopic instruments when performing minimally invasive surgery.

In recent weeks, ROVs have been in news reports on the oil spill cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico, where the underwater robots are playing key roles. In fact, ROVs have been a staple of the oil industry since the mid-1970s, when they began replacing human divers and manned submersibles for drilling support and subsea construction services to enable deepwater exploration and development projects throughout the world.

But as it turns out, ROVs have lots of different functions – and lots of jazzy names. “Jason,” for example, is a scientific ROV developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Falmouth, Massachusetts, named after the mythical Greek adventurer and ocean explorer and used for studying the depths of the ocean floor. And on the opposite coast, in Monterey, California, the Nature Conservancy is using an ROV dubbed “The Beagle” for a five-year study to assess the impact of trawl fishing in soft-bottom seafloor habitats. (The Beagle was named in honor of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and the famous research ship he sailed to the Galapagos Islands.) Check out the Nature Conservancy website to watch videos about how ROVs work and glimpse the ocean depths through the “eyes” of these underwater robots

ROVs have also been used to locate historic shipwrecks, including the Titanic; to perform mine clearing and other harrowing military tasks; and to enable salvage operations for downed planes or sunken boats, serving as “birddogs” to assess potentially dangerous conditions before scuba divers are sent in.

Gee, in answer to our original question, it seems like ROVs do pretty much everything!

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