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Ballard’s High-Tech Look on Ocean Worlds

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Several of the Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) Robert Ballard uses to probe the deep were on display Monday at the ribbon-cutting for his new Inner Space Center. They’re an essential part of Ballard’s “telepresence” exploration scenario, which I described in an earlier post. The most rugged of the submersibles can descend more than 19,000 feet (6 kilometers) beneath the surface of the ocean, collecting samples and transmitting high-definition video from the abyss.

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Towed beneath an expedition ship, the Argus “sled” has brilliant lights to illuminate the seafloor or a shipwreck as it glides above it, and thrusters that permit a pilot on the surface to orient the vehicle’s lights and cameras.

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Matt Jewel, an undergraduate earning a degree in ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island (URI), shows me the fiber optic cable which runs along the center of Argus‘ long tether connecting the sub to the ship above. The tether conveys guidance information from the pilot topside and video images from the deep.

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Hercules, in turn, is tethered to Argus and can prowl the sea floor or wrecks, transmitting yet more high-definition video, recording data about water conditions, excavating at archaeological sites, and collecting samples.

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Piloting these marvels of engineering can be a heart-stopping adventure. “When we were diving on Titanic in 2004,” says ROV pilot Todd Gregory (at left above), “our tether broke the night before a live broadcast. We got the ROV up to the surface (three hours), repaired it, sent it back down (another three hours). Finding the right spot on a target at that depth—more than 12,000 feet—is like hitting someone with a yo-yo from the top of the Empire State Building. We nailed it, and had Hercules back on the Titanic and working just five minutes before the live broadcast.”

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Towed sensors provide high-resolution 3-D maps of the seafloor, and miniature SUVs allow Ballard’s team to maneuver into tight spaces, such as inside ships.

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Pilots guide the ROVs from a “control van” installed on the deck of the research vessel to which they’re tethered. The van for Argus and Hercules was also on display Monday.

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Inside the van, an array of monitors at the pilots’ console displays live video streams from the ROVs.

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The complex black controller in the center foreground above operates Hercules‘ mechanical arms. On future expeditions, video streams from the ROVs will be relayed via satellite to the new Inner Space Center at URI and on to research centers around the world.

Photographs by Ford Cochran