Dispatch 6: Next Generation “Geek”

July 16, 1999

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It’s the Benthos Mini-Rover Mark II remotely operated vehicle (ROV). The Turkish ship’s crew calls it “bebet” or baby because it’s a bit smaller than its cousin the Sea Rover. It was once called the “Gump” for its inclination to run in a straight line and never stop moving. But National Geographic cameraman and ROV operator Keith Moorehead calls it the “Geek” and it’s his “bebet.” The Geek has shot underwater footage for several TV specials and Moorehead is a master at maneuvering it.

Photo of Keith Moorehead

Martin Bowen of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI or “hooey”) is also an accomplished ROV operator. He and Moorehead use a console with switches, buttons, and a joystick to guide the ROVs up, down, and all around; to turn on their cameras, lights, and videotape their surroundings; and in the Geek’s case, to take still photographs.

They’re looking forward to the next generation of ROVs—the ones that “will take the joystick out of my hands,” says Bowen.

Photo of the Sea Rover ROV

Bowen’s talking about a four-year research and development (R&D) effort between several partners: WHOI, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, North Carolina State University, Lockheed, and the Scripps Oceanographic Institute.

The goal of this joint R&D effort is the creation of an autonomous underwater vehicle or AUV.

The AUV would be pre-programmed to run search patterns underwater, collect data, return to a docking station, offload the data, and wait to be programmed with further instructions.

Says Bowen, “It’s like a little torpedo really.”

Versions of the AUV with different equipment configurations have already been tested. Some have side-scan sonar and video cameras and some have sensor packages that allow them to measure the temperature and depth of the marine environment they are moving through.

In theory, an AUV could be programmed to perform sonar surveys over a target like a sunken ship, videotape the target, return to its docking station, offload sonar images and video, and allow the scientists who control it to either modify its search pattern or celebrate their discovery.

The first use of a such a “hands-off” tool for high-profile exploration appears destined to be controversial.

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