Saturday, June 02, 2018

Drones For Mapping And Exploring The Deep Blue Sea

sciencefriday |  Giant jellyfish and mussels. Pallid shrimp, fish, and sea cucumbers. Never-before-seen octopus species. All these and more dwell in the deep sea, 200 meters (over 650 feet) and deeper beneath the ocean surface. It’s the largest habitat on Earth, but it’s also one of the least understood. 

As mining companies eye the mineral resources of the deep sea—from oil and gas, to metal deposits—marine biologists like London’s Natural History Museum’s Diva Amon are working to discover and describe as much of the deep sea as they can. Amon has been on dozens of expeditions to sea, where she’s helped characterize ecosystems and discover new species all over the world. And she says we still don’t know enough about deep sea ecology to know how to protect these species, the ones we’ve found and the ones we haven’t yet, from mining. 

But accessing the deep ocean is expensive; it can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a day to run a research ship. So roboticists and artificial intelligence designers are developing underwater drones to map and sniff out the secrets of the deep with the help of sophisticated chemical sensors. These robotic explorers could someday hunt down sunken ships or planes, hydrothermal vents, and biological spectacles such as rare species or a whale fall, at a cost significantly cheaper than today. Nine teams of roboticists designing these underwater crafts are now in a race to win the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE.

In this segment, Amon and XPRIZE’s Jyotika Virmani join Ira to talk about the future of deep ocean exploration—and what we might find there. And Martin Brooke, team leader of Blue Devil Ocean Engineering at Duke University, will discuss his team’s plan for mapping the deep ocean: aerial drones that drop sonar-sounding pods into the seas, then reel them up and move them to the next target.