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October 2012 Issue

Telepresence Technology Increases Accessibility of Deep-Sea Research
By Jameson Clarke

Deep-sea exploration is the essence of discovery in modern science, and plumbing the depths of yet unexplored seafloor to investigate some of the most extreme and unique ecosystems on Earth is as exhilarating as it is informative. However, this information is not easily acquired, and the methods by which scientists investigate these habitats are evolving to meet this challenge.

The scope and nature of deep-sea research is always changing, and the technology that allows such research to be conducted must keep up with the science. For example, in my studies of patchy chemosynthetic ecosystems on the seafloor, I've had the opportunity to use state-of-the-art technology for exploration and research in the lab and afield.

One such research method being developed is remote communications technology that allows scientists to virtually engage in exploration from shore-based laboratories. These computerized virtual cruises are reshaping the accessibility of deep-ocean research, a notoriously expensive and exclusive category of fieldwork.

When deep-sea research first started, video, photographic and oceanographic information instantly reached the shipboard scientific personnel, while participating scientists on shore had to wait eagerly and impatiently for their ship representatives to send back limited information, data and news from an expedition that could last weeks to months. Unaffiliated landlocked parties interested in the findings had to wait even longer for the information to be analyzed and published before they knew any results from the expedition. In some cases, close colleagues on land would get a phone call ahead of publication, a sneak preview at a poster presentation or, for the truly fortunate, a look at some of the raw data once the expedition returned to shore—all of which lacked the context that comes with shipboard experience.

When I first started conducting research in the deep sea a few years ago, things had changed noticeably. Due to improvements in computation and satellite technology, the speed of data dissemination and availability had drastically improved. Results could be communicated to land nearly as fast as data were collected through the use of low-bandwidth e-mail servers or file transfer protocol servers. Copies of the entire cruise's data set could be electronically duplicated and transmitted soon after it was generated.

Despite these advances, data collection and participation in the expedition was limited to those aboard the ship. If you wanted any stake in what and how data were collected, you needed to be in the field with the science party and ROV team, a requirement that can be time consuming and costly.

Last year, I was invited to participate as a scientist in a virtual cruise for NOAA's Ocean Exploration program. The objective of the expedition was to map, explore and survey scientifically significant hydrothermal vent fields at the Mid-Cayman Rise in the Caribbean Sea. From NOAA's Exploration Command Center, a downlink station located at the University of Rhode Island, an interdisciplinary team of professors, graduate students and research associates issued instructions directly to the ROV pilot aboard the NOAA vessel Okeanos Explorer. Unlike most research cruises, the full science party for this excursion was not aboard the vessel. Instead, a handful of researchers went into the field with the ROV team to act as liaisons for the shore-based observers.

On shore, we had access to all information available aboard the ship in real time. Using ultrahigh-bandwidth Internet 2 technology, every screen in the ROV control van was viewable to us. High-definition video footage and photographs from every camera on the ROV were beamed from approximately 5,000 meters below the surface of the ocean to the Okeanos Explorer. From there, it was beamed back to shore as digital feeds on any of the myriad large monitors, with only a few seconds of lag time.

Researchers participating on the ship or on the shore were all signed into a digital event log, where they could collectively record their observations and communicate with one another while watching the live video stream. The immediate availability of new data from the ROV and ship coupled with the collaboration facilitated by the downlink station and the event log allowed us to make swift changes to the dive plans as soon as the latest information was available. As a result, the efficiency of our time and resources was greatly improved.

Ship-to-shore remote communications technology has greatly expanded the accessibility of deep-ocean research and exploration by allowing many more scientists and students to participate than what would have been possible with the previous limitations of a small number of berths and the high cost of travel on a ship.

Consequently, the observational data from the Mid-Cayman Rise cruise were more comprehensive, and the video feed was streamed live over the Internet for public outreach and education, enabling interested parties around the world to learn from and be a part of once exclusive expeditions.

As older research vessels retire and new vessels are outfitted with the latest oceanographic equipment, telepresence technology will become more frequent and vital in deep-sea research. Already, labs are turning to remote communications and AUVs to get maximum information for minimum money.

The success of the Mid-Cayman Rise expedition and the potential for public education and academic participation will expand the role of telepresence technology from its prototypical niche in exploration to fully realized physical sampling as we continue to investigate the depths of the sea.

Jameson Clarke is a second-year doctoral student at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. He works at the university's marine laboratory, focusing on characterizing the nature and extent of genetic connectivity among patchy chemosynthetic ecosystems, such as hydrothermal vents and cold seeps in the deep ocean. He has recently returned from expeditions in waters around the Mid-Cayman Rise, Barbados and Antarctica.


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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.