In Search of the Unknown, This Robot to Explore Pitch-Black Ocean Deep

Underwater vehicle SuBastian about to take a dunk in a Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute tank.  (Yuko Inatsuki)

Ready for a year of deep ocean adventures, SuBastian, a remotely operated underwater vehicle, got its "feet" wet during its first public appearance on Wednesday at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

The custom-built robot will be able to take 4k video, sample underwater thermal vents and collect rocks 2.8 miles below the ocean's surface where darkness, near-freezing temperatures and intense pressure make it difficult for humans to explore.

“The ROV [remotely operated vehicle] has the power of a rugby player but the dexterity of a neurosurgeon,” says project manager David Wotherspoon.

It's the first submersible vehicle the Schmidt Ocean Institute, founded by Alphabet Inc. executive chairman Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy,  has ever built.  Wendy Schmidt has also established the Ocean Health XPRIZE, a $2 million competition to improve understanding of the impact of ocean acidification.

Previously, the Schmidt Ocean Institute rented scientific robots and launched them off its retrofitted 272-foot German ship, Falkor. (And yes, both Falkor and SuBastian get their names from the same 1980s cult classic film.)

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Now, with the multimillion-dollar vehicle, the institute can collect data and send it back to engineers on Falkor in near real time.

SuBastian's 10 video cameras will be able to send screen grabs back to controllers in a special workstation on Falkor installed inside a shipping container. From there, engineers can send directions to SuBastian about which way to move, what samples to collect and what chemicals, like oxygen or sulfur, to measure from thermal vents.

This thermal vent or "black smoker" is located in the Gulf of California and spews mineral-rich water that's over 550 degrees Fahrenheit.
This thermal vent or "black smoker" is located in the Gulf of California and spews mineral-rich water that's over 550 degrees Fahrenheit. (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

These vents or "ocean chimneys" are one of the things SuBastian is specifically designed to test. The boiling hot fluids spewing out of the ocean floor occur near geologically active areas and are similar to geysers or fumaroles.

The Schmidt engineering team built titanium thermal probes that can take hot fluid samples from these vents. Two "arms" on the front of SuBastian can grasp the probe, which will go directly into the hottest part of the vent to take its temperature.

These thermal vents support unique ecosystems that can survive in high temperatures without sunlight and studying them may hold clues about the evolution of life on Earth.

But part of researching the deep ocean means not getting stuck down there. So SuBastian has two types of sonar to map its environment.


(Engineers test one of SuBastian’s arms.)

Forward-looking imaging sonar tells operators how close it is to certain objects while scanning sonar prevents collisions and warns of muddy or silty terrain.

Because the ROV runs on power from the main ship it can work continuously for days or even weeks at a time. An umbilical cord connects the robot to Falkor and contains a group of copper electrical conductors and fiber optics that carry electric power, video and data signals.

The cord is also load-bearing so it won't snap if the vehicle brings back heavy samples or if Falkor gets inundated by storms at sea.

The samples SuBastian could collect include rocks, coral or core samples that show oxygen deposits in the sea floor.

And it may stumble upon new forms of life.

During a 2014 Falkor voyage, a lander (a camera-carrying underwater platform that works like an elevator) encountered a "ghost" fish, the deepest fish known to science.

At 26,715 feet below the ocean's surface the fish roamed an area east of Guam called the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world's oceans.

And that's exactly where SuBastian is headed this year. This summer the ROV crew will test SuBastian in the open ocean and after that they will conduct scientific experiments in the Marianas Trench during November.

Because so little of the ocean is explored—some experts, like diver and scientist Sylvia Earle, say it's only 5 percent—SuBastian will offer unparalleled opportunities to understand previously unvisited areas.

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"I’m really looking forward to getting this out there," says Wotherspoon.

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