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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.

The issue is not one of robots versus piloted vehicles, it’s one of national will. The U.S. public is not engaged in deep science and exploration. And the quickest way to get even less interest and engagement is to take human explorers out of the vehicles, and have it all done robotically.

No kid ever dreamed of growing up to be a robot. But they do dream of being explorers. And inspiring young minds and imaginations is one of the most important things we can be doing if we want a future supply of engineers and scientists insuring our lead in innovation.

My submersible program easily attracted young, brilliant engineers to work exceedingly long hours for low pay because their imaginations were captured by what we were attempting. And the public’s interest in our dives, as measured by the literally billions of website hits, was several orders of magnitude greater than the dives of the very capable Nereus remotely operated vehicle done several years ago at the same deep spot in the Challenger Deep. Very few people outside the marine science community even noticed the historic Nereus dives because no one was inside experiencing it firsthand and returning to tell the story.

The funding for ocean science and exploration is determined by political will, which is an oxymoron because politicians have no will, they only have a need to avoid criticism. They avoid criticism while funding science and exploration only when the public believes this is something good and necessary, and that only happens when the public is engaged and excited by the exploration itself.

I believe the correct approach is combining the strengths of fully autonomous vehicles, remotely operated vehicles, and human-piloted vehicles, into a suite of tools to explore this vast dark territory at the bottom of the world’s oceans. Each type of vehicle provides important and necessary capability. I have personally designed and built fiberoptic tethered ROVs and flown them extensively, at depths down to 5,000 meters, so I am very aware of their capabilities. But they don’t replace actually being there, in situ, in a sub.

The deepest trenches, with depths from 6,000 meters to 11,000 meters, have a combined area the equivalent of Australia. And that area has been virtually unexplored. When I dove five miles down in the New Britain Trench, in March last year, I was literally the first investigator ever to look there, and I was seeing new species previously undescribed by science. We used unpiloted lander vehicles, working in tandem with our human-piloted sub, to return an enormous amount of science from an expedition that was intended primarily as the sea trials of a new diving system.

Contrary to Dr. Ballard’s assertion [that subs are good for fun but not for science], there is significant interest from the science and marine engineering communities in our new technical capabilities, both in the submersible itself and in applying its innovations to other vehicle platforms. I have an ongoing team of engineers currently interfacing with the oceanographic institutions to hand over our new technology, which I consider open source, so that it can benefit other science and exploration programs. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Deepsea Challenge program will be the advances made in camera and lighting systems, acoustic communications, thrusters, batteries, and flotation technology, all of which can be applied to future vehicle programs. Dr. Ballard himself will no doubt benefit at some point from these advances.