Science, 'sailbots,' and the deep distant sea

William Seaman
Science columnist

Ocean scientists can face hazards on and below the surface of the sea that few of us on shore may ever know. Overcoming potential dangers such as hurricane-force winds, rare 60-foot “rogue waves,” and perhaps even icebergs, as well as facing the deep ocean’s near-freezing temperatures, total darkness and crushing pressure can be part of the job. All just to get to a workplace. 

Once on-site, scientists, engineers and technicians must have the tools to do the job, even in the harshest environments.

Working from the decks of vessels such as the 209-foot long “Pisces” modern researchers are able to deploy small remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and newer autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to make the dangerous descent to explore ecosystems that are as deep as six miles. These unmanned vehicles are marvels of engineering, electronics and computer science research and development over the past half-century. “Sentry,” for example, is a 9.7-foot long, 3,200-pound AUV rated to dive up to 19,000 feet. It can be commanded to perform sonar and magnetic surveys of the sea floor, take pictures, measure water chemistry and collect samples.

Just off Cape Hatteras, under 100 miles from shore, the floor of the sea drops off to 10,000-foot depths. Closer in, a series of submarine canyons and sea mounts have drawn scientific teams to explore the poorly known sea bottom. The physical aspects of the canyons are “Extremely rugged and as awesome and grand as the well-known Grand Canyon,” says Dr. Steve Ross of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “They can be miles wide and in the scale of land canyons.”

From a geological standpoint, information on canyon stability along the U.S. Atlantic coast is being gathered through research funded by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Here the concern is for ocean canyons as potential sources of landslides that can generate tsunamis, the giant waves that can destroy coastal infrastructure such as nuclear electric power plants. (Think Fukushima, Japan.)

Biologically speaking, the world’s deep submarine canyons are being recognized as hotspots for plant and animal diversity and abundance.

While clear, warm, shallow waters may first come to mind when we think of coral reefs, off Carolina at much greater depths there are what are called “cold-water coral” species as well. Some are as colorful and ornate as any species from the tropics. These organisms in turn provide important habitat for other species. For example, the coral Lophelia which occurs worldwide including offshore North Carolina can host 1,300 species of fishes and invertebrates, an incredible number.

Corals, including cup corals and bubblegum corals reside on the hard substrate near the edge of the mussel bed.

Despite advances in technologies that enable more powerful observations of the world’s oceans, science has a long way to go. As observed by Dr. Cindy Van Dover, Duke University oceanography professor, “The deep sea is really vast, and… we barely have a glimpse of what’s going on down there.”

Thus, additional ways of extending the capabilities of scientists are emerging. Sometimes referred to as “sailbots,” sailing drones may revolutionize ocean exploration.

While some of the research and theoretical aspects of sailing drone technology are being advanced at places such as “SailBot 2018,” the 12th annual International Robotic Sailing Competition held last month in Massachusetts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one dramatic application took place earlier in 2018 under a Stanford University project to explore the “Great White Shark Café.” Two 23-foot long sailing drones were sent 1,200 miles into the Eastern Pacific where they successfully took up positions and electronically tracked and transmitted fish movements in a month-long convergence of thousands of Great White Sharks that had migrated to the area. 

Going one step further to build scientific capabilities for study of both the ocean and outer space, due to similar challenges such as access and deploying probes, ROBEX (Robotic Exploration of Extreme Environments) “brings together the world’s first integrated space and deep-sea research group,” according to the Helmholtz Alliance in Germany. There, 16 institutions are beginning to develop technologies to improve exploration of extreme environments such as the deep sea, polar regions, the moon and other celestial bodies. An initial geology project is tackling how to remotely conduct seismic surveys.

Scientists and the public now can join undersea explorations while still on shore.

“Telepresence technology” allows shore-based scientists to interact with their shipboard colleagues through a teleconference line and Internet collaboration tools. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for example, can transmit data from offshore in “real time” to scientists across the nation who actively participate in expeditions.

Meanwhile, from July 12 to August 4 anyone interested can get live streaming video of the NOAA “Okeanos Explorer” ship’s remote sensing of the sea floor in the Atlantic Ocean East of North Carolina by visiting website  (Hint: Camera 3 is showing the actual sea conditions topside! Click “Multimedia” and “Live Video” if you get lost.)