Robots may soon swarm the ocean floor searching for resources

ROV KIEL 6000

The robot ROV KIEL 6000 sets out on an expedition to explore the Indian Ocean. Similar bots will be deployed as part of AtlantOS. Credit: © ROV-Team, GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel

By Elena Suglia

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Swarms of robots could soon be zooming along the ocean floor, exploring the mysteries of the deep. These aquatic explorers would be part of AtlantOS, an ocean observing system that aims to explore one of Earth’s final frontiers.

Despite the fact that the oceans cover over two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, over 90% of the deep sea is largely unexplored and is in some ways foreign, said Martin Visbeck, a research scientist at Germany’s Research Center for Marine Geosciences and leader of AtlantOS. The project will provide a “much clearer, scientifically robust idea of what the ocean is, how it works and what services it can provide to us,” he said during a Feb. 14 symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.

The oceans sustain life on Earth and provide millions of people with food and jobs, but the deep ocean remains a source of massive untapped potential. Mining the deep ocean, for example, could provide natural gas and other resources that are becoming increasingly scarce on land. Those resources may become increasingly important as scientists look to the ocean to support a rapidly growing human population. One resource scientists are particularly interested in mining is gas hydrates. This form of natural gas is an ice-like substance that forms when certain gases combine with water at the right pressure and temperature. It could be used as an energy resource like other natural gases.

“Many of these opportunities rely on our ability to better map and see what’s out there in the deep sea,” Visbeck said. Mapping techniques used by ships on the ocean’s surface can only provide low-resolution imaging on a scale of hundreds of meters, which is not fine enough to be useful for mining efforts in the deep ocean. Instead, groups of robotic vehicles moving close to the ocean floor could map the underwater regions down to the scale of a few meters. “We can do on the seafloor what a geologist can do on land by going into sites with his hammer and chisel, only we’re using robots,” Visbeck said.

With current technologies, the project would take at least 20 years. Because it is such a large-scale, long-term project, the scientists at the symposium emphasized that international cooperation is key to the success of deep-sea mapping efforts. Part of the project’s goal is to build on existing projects and centralize efforts by integrating ocean-observing activities across scientific disciplines and national boundaries.

The ocean “helps us have a fulfilling life,” Visbeck said. With the help of droves of robots, scientists may soon discover just how much society’s future depends on the bottom of the sea.

Elena Suglia is a senior at Brown University concentrating in biology. Her published works include scientific illustrations, poetry, scientific papers, and science journalism. She also researches salt marshes in a marine ecology laboratory, plays rugby, and most importantly, knows how to ride a unicycle.