Advancements in Underwater Vehicles: Responding to Current Environmental Issues

author: James Morash
published: Sept. 16, 2013,   recorded: November 2007,   views: 2699

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Even if humans could breathe under water like fish, we might not want to become permanently aquatic. “Believe it or not,” says James Morash , “the deep ocean is kind of boring,” covered as it is by so much sandy sea floor. And yet there’s much to be learned about this terrain, which was a mystery to humans up ‘til the last century. As Morash points out, ocean systems are increasingly of interest to climate change scientists, and to researchers interested in the impacts of warming on marine ecosystems.

It has proved too dangerous and expensive, Morash tells us, to send humans inside submersibles to carry out much of this painstaking and time-consuming underwater research, so engineers have been designing vehicles that can do much of the work in our stead. The first generation of such vehicles required cables for power and commands from the surface, and with cameras and lights, were “not much more than flying eyeballs.” The cables proved a major limitation, constraining the vehicles operating scope and getting in the way in rough seas.

Morash and his colleagues have been cooking up a new generation of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which resemble the rovers operating on Mars. They’re fitted out with batteries, acoustic telemetry, and on board computers. “What you have is a vehicle that is happy to drive above the sea floor for hours at a time, taking endless photos of bare sand until it happens across something more exciting like a deep water coral reef or a shipwreck.” Applications for AUVs include essential, drudge missions like taking water quality samples over a wide patch of ocean, at different depths, or remote monitoring of coral reefs for decay and seasonal changes. The oil industry uses AUVs for maintaining offshore oil rigs. The Navy has requested an AUV that might serve as a disaster response platform in case of a flood, to test a watershed for “spreading pollution plumes” or to identify other waterborne hazards. And Morash’s colleagues are testing another AUV in the MIT alumni pool that is designed to dive quickly down to coral communities that serve as fish nurseries, places so deep that life is based not on sunlight but on chemosynthesis.

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