Exploring History



Henry Stommel, an eminent oceanographer from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, envisioned the day that there would be “a thousand swimming robots” in the sea.  His vision has been partially realized with the technology in Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), computer-controlled systems operating under the water.

When you compare vehicles, some of them look like torpedoes, some of them look like stingrays, some of them look like things with flippers on them.  So the breadth of that is pretty exciting, and what they can do.

They are designed with the intelligence to perform their tasks, identify problems, and adapt to different situations. AUVs can help protect our environment, as well as mitigate threats to our national security. And now, they are even being used to search for sunken history.

So, when you take AUV technology, you can see how the ships maneuvered, where the canon balls landed, where all the ship debris scattered as they blew up.  That gives you greater insight as to the decisions that were made on those significant days.

Autonomous Underwater Vehicles can be equipped with sophisticated sensing devices. These sensors can measure different ocean characteristics; others can provide images of objects under the water or even buried below the ocean bottom.  Since visibility under the sea is usually poor, sound - or SONAR - is used to create these acoustic pictures.

Side-Scan Sonar can produce very realistic imagery of objects and the seafloor. As the ping, or sound wave, travels underwater, it will reflect off objects such as sunken ships. The sonar distinguishes between these objects and creates dark or light regions that make up the astonishingly clear images we are able see today.

Since the 1990’s, the Office of Naval Research has been investing in AUVs and their advanced sensors to help search for mines. Now, marine archeologists are able to use this amazing technology and put it to use exploring sunken history.

Over 2,000 shipwrecks can be found in the waters off Rhode Island, which has more shipwrecks than any other state per square mile.  These shipwrecks include British frigates intentionally burned and sunk during the Revolutionary War in 1778 to avoid capture by a French fleet.

Four of these shipwreck sites, including the HMS Cerberus and HMS Lark, were explored using AUV technology.  Several new discoveries are being made with these advanced remote sensing technologies, as they help marine archeologists answer important questions about our history.

A benefit of AUV exploration, and one that is of critical importance in exploring sunken ships, is the non-invasive nature of the technology.  AUV missions will not disturb these delicate sites in any physical way.

Not only can AUVs help marine archeologists, but they are also being used in coastal surveys, fisheries research, and ocean exploration. Through these demonstrations, we can really grow the pull for this technology and basically increase access to the sea. Everything good will follow from that.

Perhaps a thousand swimming robots in the sea is closer than we think.