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Bob Ballard Update: The Explorer Gets His Dreamboats

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Bob Ballard’s new fleet is changing how discoveries are made.

Last summer, two telepresence-enabled research vessels hit the high seas. No, we’re not talking Star Trek—the E/V Nautilus and Okeanos Explorer use satellite communications to bring scientists across the globe aboard, virtually, in 20 minutes flat. The system, designed by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Robert Ballard (who discovered the Titanic), allows the ships to roam year-round, 24/7, with the best pair of eyes at the helm. During initial trials the ships “made huge discoveries roughly every 11 hours,” says Ballard. “It was ridiculous.” Here’s how Ballard’s fleet works. Text by Peter Koch

1 – Ballard’s ship, the E/V Nautilus, maps the bottom of the Indian Ocean, near Oman with sidescan sonar, searching ancient trade routes for a shipwreck. It picks up an unnatural pattern on the seafloor, and the ship launches ROVs for a closer look. At 2,500 feet, their lights illuminate a wreck.

2 – Onboard, round-the-clock ROV pilots summon the ship’s senior scientist, Dwight Coleman, to the command center to assess their discovery. Coleman takes one glance and thinks it could be a major find. He’s not an archaeologist, though, so he seeks a second opinion.

3 – Nautilus transmits live footage of the wreck to the University of Rhode Island’s Inner Space Center (ISC) via an uninterrupted high-bandwidth satellite uplink.

4 – Coleman calls ISC, where overcaffeinated graveyard shift technicians are watching the dive unfold in real time. Coleman asks them to contact an archaeologist to patch through to Nautilus’s command center. 

5 – It’s 2:30 a.m. in Seattle when the archaeologist gets a telephone call. She logs onto her home computer and sees live video of the wreck piped in, 8,600 miles away. She speaks directly to the ROV pilot—as he maneuvers around the wreck, she assesses it. If it’s an important find, she’ll drive to a local remote console (one in a network of ten nationwide), where she can take command of the exploration. Otherwise, the Nautilus is free to continue searching.