[Image: A late 1950s artwork, depicting Trieste operating on the deep ocean floor. U.S. NHHC Photograph.]
According to a Popular Mechanics article from October 2009, more humans have made it to the outer limits, beyond our atmosphere into “space”, than have plunged into the mysterious depths of our earth’s oceans, into the “deep sea”. In order to clarify how an underwater area comes to be considered “deep sea”, its been commonly defined as “as the area below which photosynthesis can function“, which is generally around 600 feet below the surface.
Epic manned missions have taken place into the deep sea, most notably the Trieste’s six-mile submersion in 1960 into the deepest known part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench. The two-man crew aboard remain the only human beings to ever reach such depths.
[Image: The route of the Challenger traveled between 1872-1876]
To briefly describe the extreme geography explored, the Mariana trench is “the lowest elevation of the surface of the earth’s crust”. This anomaly of the underwater landscape is located in the Western Pacific Ocean and was first discovered during the Challenger Expedition in the 1870’s, a three-and-a-half year voyage across the globe’s waters.
The area surveyed by the Trieste over a hundred years later is appropriatley titled the Challenger Deep, named after the expedition which originally discovered it. The area is “more than a mile deeper than Mount Everest is high”
and the pressure about 1,100 times greater than that of the surface. Two other missions have since journeyed into the Challenger Deep. However, both trips were completed by unmanned robotic vessels.
Presently, the realm of underwater data collection and the death-defying dives involved have been assigned to specially designed underwater vehicles meant for maneuvering in the extremely high-pressure, low-light conditions miles beneath the water’s surface.
[Image: Underwater shot of BP oil spill via submersible robot.]
Submersible robots were popularly seen most recently in relation to the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the robots being controlled from land by remote operators using the mechanical arms equipped with various tools to secure containment caps on the underwater leaks. These were also the same robots which provided the horrific and sureal live feed of oil gushing uncontrollably underwater. [An aside: Edward Burtynsky’s Aerial Views of the Oil Spill are totally insane.]
Removed from the world of disaster response and human-operated underwater robots, some of the most exciting developments happening in underwater exploration are due in part to the developments of the AUV, or Autonomous Underwater Vehicle. These robots are separated from other underwater robots by their ability to maneuver without manual control and be powered internally by battery or, in a much more high-tech, eco-friendly fashion, by collecting thermal energy from the ocean.
When it [the AUV] moves from cooler water to warmer areas, internal
tubes of wax are heated up and expand, pushing out the gas in
surrounding tanks and increasing its pressure. The compressed gas
stores potential energy, like a squeezed spring, that can be used to
power the vehicle.
Battery-powered AUVs, such as the one recently put into action by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, are also still developing.
The AUV completed a four-day science run with plenty of battery power remaining, using relatively low-power rechargeable batteries. Based on these promising initial results, the researchers hope that the little robot will eventually be able to travel from California to Hawaii using high-power disposable batteries.
And as far as the AUV’s mean of communication: Radio frequencies don’t work underwater and the robots communicate in a way similar to whales using an underwater acoustic positioning system.
[Image: A view of the inner workings of Festa’s Aqua Penguin]
Presently, I’m reminded to include a link to footage of Festo’s Aqua Penguin, among a handful of Festo’s other remarkable accomplishments. From their website:
The bionic Penguins are designed as autonomous underwater vehicles that independently orient themselves and navigate through the water basin. They are supported by a 3D sonar system which, as with dolphins, allows communication with their surroundings and with other robotic penguins – for example to avoid collisions.
Its fair to ask how this sort of engineering and robotics fits into our lives, technology replacing humans in the vast world of exploration. Maybe an even better question to ask at the moment would be exactly how will these sort of developments progress to become part of the cadre of everyday experience. Will we next invent robots that supersede humans in developing new technologies? Robots developing robots better than themselves…
The work being done by Festo probably deserves a post of it’s own, a space dedicated to analyzing the significance of inventions such as the AirPenguin. The surface is really just being skimmed here in terms of thinking about this technology.
[Image: The R.M.S. Titanic as seen in Google Earth.]
To veer back onto a discussion regarding robots of the underwater variety, my own interest in the topic originated from considering the mapping of the ocean. Aside from the aesthetic splendor of the images produced by such projects, the concept of navigating and revealing this lightly-chartered realm of the earth through the use of technology seems important to understanding how we will continue to experience and engage with our natural environment.
The latest version of Google Earth is now equipped with an Ocean feature, an application which allows the user a new freedom of movement:
…to dive beneath the surface, explore the ocean with top marine experts, learn about ocean observations, climate change, endangered species and discover new places including surf spots, shipwrecks and travel spots.
As a Guardian article from Feburary of last year states, the mapping of the seabed is bringing Google Earth “closer to its aim of creating a complete digital representation of the planet.” With the earth being around 70% water, the ability to explore and document the deep sea is crucial to this virtual pioneering of the globe.
One must wonder, does this change things? Will a simulated tour around the world change the way we come to think of ourselves, how we position our personal lives in the realm of the larger universe? If it were possible to collectively get to a point where our mental states were always in a sort of “Powers of Ten” version of awareness, constantly awed by the magnitude of the galaxy, would we even be able to function as we do now or would our minds collapse under the pressure?
Better yet, perhaps after Google Earth conquers the ocean, a technology can be created which, via webcam, a user is allowed to have a microcosmic experience along with their macro one, zooming in on a pore of their nose and moving ever smaller into molecular wonderment only to eventually return, gradually zooming farther out, to the standard start-up image of Google Earth: The globe seen as a round mass of land and water.
It can be said with certainty that the age of exploration is not yet dead, that their is plenty of this earth yet to be discovered. However, all of this landscape is underwater, hidden under tons upon tons of pressure, among total darkness and weird deep sea creatures. So we create a cartography of the inaccessible abyss and send robots of our own making in place for us to build and fix things, to record and collect data, and to assist in simulating such a submerged experience, one more effort towards trying see places we are unable to go.