Underwater robots: Exploring the deep blue sea

We’ve all heard of robots in outer space, but did you know about the ones that explore “inner space” – the ocean? Although they occupy completely different worlds, both deal with working in large, dark, unexplored environments.

So what are the different types of underwater robots? Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are robots that are connected by a series of cables to an operator on a ship. These cables transmit commands and control signals between the operator on the ship and the ROV.

Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) are battery powered robots, propelled through the water on a pre-programmed journey and are not manned at all until their mission is complete. When they surface, they signal for a ship to come and retrieve them. Gliders are a type of AUV with a few major differences; not only is there no pilot, but there is no propeller. Gliders are much slower but are incredibly energy and cost efficient, allowing them to offer months of data collection at one time. 

Not only can ocean robots travel to deep depths to produce maps and provide us with a greater understanding of the ocean and sea floor habitats; they have also been involved in many other incredible scientific discoveries.

In the rare cases of airplane crashes and sinking ships, AUVs and ROVs go to the areas inaccessible to humans. AUVs located Air France Flight 447 two years after it crashed in the Southern Atlantic Ocean in 2011 and in 1985, ocean explorers used an ROV to unveil the wreck of the Titanic thousands of meters below the ocean’s surface.

In 2010, a UK team from the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton (NOCS) used an AUV to map the full depths of the Cayman Trench. They discovered undersea volcanoes on the ocean floor at a depth of about 5000m, the deepest yet found! These undersea hot vents, named “Black Smokers” may be hotter than 450 degrees Celsius, making them some of the hottest known.

In 2012, they also announced the discovery of a new species that inhabited the area; an eyeless shrimp. These shrimp were found congregating in groups of up to 2000 individuals around the mineral-laden spires of the vents.

Earlier this year the University of Delaware visited the Little Cayman Research Centre and brought along their AUV and ROV robots. They were using the AUV to survey the coral reef structures around Little Cayman in order to create special maps of the sea floor. This is fantastic for scientific studies as it allows scientists to better understand the environment where they work. Little Cayman is famous for having some of the world’s most beautiful, “untouched” coral reef systems, but they have never been surveyed in this way, making it a perfect location for the mission.

Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) researchers and the university also made the exciting discovery on video of a lionfish at 136 metres (about 450 feet) – the deepest lionfish recorded to date in Little Cayman.

With these underwater robots, scientists will continue to discover the great secrets of the deep blue waters surrounding the Cayman Islands as well as oceans worldwide.

Story by: Jade Arch, programme marketing coordinator for the Central Caribbean Marine Institute