Sunday, January 27, 2013
Are Robots Taking over Ocean Science? James Cameron Responds to Robert Ballard on Deep-Sea Exploration
Do you remember growing up watching Jacques Cousteau and getting your first glimpse of the ocean floor on your TV set? Or how about the various documentaries where we followed cameras into the deepest realms of the ocean to discover the mysteries of the sinking of the Titanic? These are the moments and memories that have inspired today’s ocean divers, deep-sea photographers, biochemists, environmental engineers, geologists and marine biologists.
But as funding becomes slim for marine exploration, the future of human expeditions is now on the line. According to a recent article in Newsweek, government support for ocean exploration has sunk to unprecedented lows, which could mean forthcoming excursions manned by robotics.
Even James Cameron, popular director (Avatar, Titanic, The Abyss) who recently followed his passion and became the first human to make a solo trip to the deepest part of the ocean in the western Pacific, responded to this news. “No kid ever dreamed of becoming a robot,” he said
The quickest way to destroy ocean science, James Cameron tellsNewsweek, is to take human explorers out of the water.
I know Bob Ballard well and continue to admire and support his efforts. But here’s the problem with his argument: it’s not as if more funding is being made available for ROV (remote operated vehicle) and AUV (automated underwater vehicle) exploration as a result of cutting funding to piloted subs. No money is being freed up by these draconian cuts. Funding is being cut across the board, in the U.S., including for ROV and AUV operations, and deep-ocean science in general. Piloted subs, which are the most expensive to operate, are being cut most aggressively.
In contrast to this, the Chinese have recently launched the most advanced piloted research submersible in the world, the Jialong (Sea Dragon) with a 7,000-meter operating depth, at an unknown cost but presumably hundreds of millions to develop. And the Japanese just announced two days ago a $150 million program to dive their Shinkai 6,500 meters at deep trenches and hydrothermal vent sites around the world. One hundred and fifty million dollars could fund the type of work I’ve been doing with the Mir submersibles for another 10 years. The Chinese and Japanese governments obviously believe that human-occupied, piloted vehicles are important.