The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just completed its first joint international mission where telepresence was used to send data, including images from the seafloor in real-time, via satellite and high-speed Internet pathways to scientists in Exploration Command Centers around the world.
The 2010 expedition was the maiden voyage of NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, which worked with the Indonesian Research Vessel Baruna Jaya IV. U.S. and Indonesian scientists worked side-by-side on both ships as well as in the shore-based command centers in Jakarta, Seattle, Silver Spring, MD and Kingston, RI, where they analyzed the data sent from the Okeanos Explorer’s Remotely Operated Vehicle or ROV. The mission’s goal was to study deep sea habitats and marine life in unknown ocean areas near Indonesia.
“In an incredible extension of telepresence technology, live images from the seafloor also went for the first time to scientists ashore beyond Exploration Command Centers,” said NOAA scientist Steve Hammond, Ph.D., the expedition’s U.S. chief scientist. “One scientist at the University of Victoria shared the live seafloor video with her ocean science students and took still frames from the video to email to other ocean experts who could help with identifications. We had scientists of many disciplines in numerous locations all sharing comments in an online chat room as they viewed live video,” he said. “All those comments are time-coded to the video for further reference and research.”
NOAA had to make sure the images sent back using telepresence were the highest quality. The ROV that gathered the images, dubbed Little Herc, was given an extensive 4 month overhaul. According to NOAA, Little Herc boasted a new motor controller and power bottle system, an upgraded fiber optic multiplexer system, a new Ultra Short Baseline Tracking System (USBL), a full color imaging sonar, a new Conductivity-Temperature-Depth (CTD) sensor, two new single chip color CCD cameras, two new LED lights, two 400watt HMI Lights and a spectacular High Definition video camera, in addition to new tethers, new tether terminations, a new transformer, a new electrical junction box, new depth and altitude sensors, a new light bar and a new version of control software. Little Herc can travel down to a depth of 4,000 meters.
The Okeanos Explorer is the only NOAA ship to have a dedicated ROV, which makes it easier to deploy at any time. On the Okeanos Explorer, there is an integrated control room for operating the ROV and for running telepresence communication. According to NOAA, having the screens and computers permanently wired to the ship makes it more efficient to sustain long-term exploration in remote areas of the world. Images from the seafloor also can go live into classrooms, newsrooms, and living rooms through the use of the telepresence technology.
The application of telepresence technology for ocean science and exploration and for education and outreach was first envisioned by Robert Ballard, Ph.D., who partnered with NOAA to develop and refine the technology to bring underwater discovery to audiences ashore. Expedition scientists on this latest mission believe that high-definition video transmitted from the deep sea to scientists ashore in real-time provided a significant step forward in identifying marine animals, geologic features and other aspects of the deep regions of the Sulawesi Sea near Indonesia.
“We had a fantastic view of the summit area of Kawio Barat and the features we saw strongly suggest very recent volcanic activity at 6,200 feet,” said David Butterfield, PhD., a scientist with NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. “Seeing an eruption at Kawaio Barat is a priority for future observations. Although 70 percent of Earth’s volcanic activity takes place under the ocean surface, researchers have only observed active eruptions by two undersea volcanoes.”
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is operated, managed and maintained by NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes commissioned officers of the NOAA Corps and civilian wage mariners. NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research is responsible for operating the cutting-edge ocean exploration systems on the vessel. It is the only federal ship dedicated to systematic exploration of the planet’s largely unknown ocean.
Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., the U.S. under secretary for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator says Okeanos is scheduled to return to Indonesia next summer to continue its mission.