The Day – Mystic-based firm develops groundbreaking ocean exploration technology

Mystic — The Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, based at the Mystic Seaport Museum, has developed technology that allowed a pilot at its facility in Quonset Point, RI, last month to operate an underwater vehicle in the Florida Keys — 1,600 miles away and more than a mile below the surface.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the development this week and reported that GFOE’s technology meant there was just a 1.25-second delay with transmissions, even though the signals traveled a total of 44,000 miles from the remotely operated vehicle (ROV), up to a satellite, down to Rhode Island and back.

Using the so-called telepresence technology, NOAA said that during the 2022 shakedown cruise of its ship Okeanos Explorer, a GFOE pilot in Rhode Island “skillfully piloted” an underwater vehicle over a boulder field in a previously unexplored canyon in the Straits of Florida. GFOE engineers were aboard the Okeanos Explorer to launch and retrieve GFOE’s ROV, called Deep Discoverer, which can take photos and video and retrieve samples from the bottom.

NOAA said telepresence technology has been “a game changer for deep-ocean exploration.”

“It changed who could participate, and when, how, and from where they could do so,” the agency stated. “First we used it to engage scientists from shore in real time, then we used it to invite the public into deep-ocean exploration, and finally we used it to conduct mapping operations from shore.”

The challenge with the technology has been to decrease the period of time, or latency, it takes to transmit the video and other input from the ROV to shore and then the instructions back to the ROV as the onshore pilot sees what the vehicle sees.

GFOE Project Manager Melissa Ryan pointed out that a several-second delay could mean problems for the vehicle as it performs its tasks.

GFOE President Dave Lovalvo said it took a “tremendous amount of work” by GFOE and Verizon engineers to refine the software to decrease the latency period.

Last year GFOE tested the technology aboard its underwater vehicle Yogi as it explored Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming but was controlled by a pilot in Rhode Island. It took that development and transferred it to the Okeanos Explorer.

“Most of the R&D (research and development) happened in Yellowstone,” Lovalvo said.

GFOE also developed the capability to operate its Research Vessel Annie in an autonomous mode, which allowed it to automatically follow Yogi during a dive.

Lovalvo said there are several benefits to the being able to operate a vehicle remotely.

First, he said bunks on research vessels such as the Okeanos Explorer are in high demand as scientists try to secure one to do their work. He said having a pilot or two be on shore frees up some space. In addition, he said being able to work from shore decreases the stress on pilots as others can share the work load.

NOAA, meanwhile, said shoreside ROV piloting provides opportunities for engineers on shore who may be unable to go to sea and for the training of new ROV engineers.

Later this month a new exhibit will open at Mystic Seaport that will showcase the work of GFOE, including its central role in the discovery in February of the wreck of the only whaling ship known to have sunk in the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors will be able to watch a livestream of GFOE’s May expedition with NOAA, called “Valor in the Atlantic,” on an 85-inch monitor.

That expedition will explore historic shipwrecks from the US Civil War, such as the ironclad USS Monitor, as well as wrecks from World War I and the World War II Battle of the Atlantic, in which German U-boats attacked Allied merchant vessels resulting in a large number of WWII shipwrecks along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The remotely operated vehicles also will film the wide variety of fish that occupy the wrecks to help determine the importance of shipwrecks as habitats for marine life.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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