Japan Marine Science and Technology Center Using Underwater Drones to Better Understand and Predict Global Environmental Changes


As an archipelago nation made up of 6,852 islands spanning 145,937 sq mi, having an in-depth relationship with the ocean is vital to Japan. On October 1, 1971, the Japanese government established the Japan Marine Science and Technology Center to conduct marine based research. Today the organization is called the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) and has an annual budget of over $300 milllion, supporting a staff of just under a thousand. With their headquarters in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, JAMSTEC researches with a global community of scientists in locations all over the world.

JAMSTEC outlines their research objectives for the next 15 years as such, “An integrated understanding and prediction of global environmental changes. The establishment of an advanced understanding of the Earth’s interior, and its application for the mitigation of earthquake and tsunami disasters. A comprehensive study of the evolution of life and the history of the Earth. Development of resources research, and biotechnology.” To tackle all of these goals JAMSTEC has a fleet of marine research vessels equipped with state of the art laboratories and tools such as aquatic drones.

The ships currently in service for JAMSTEC are the Yokosuka, Kaimei, Mirai, Kairei, Shinsei Maru, Hakuho Maru, Shinkai 6500, and Chikyu. Aboard these vessels, JAMSTEC will use one or more of the 4 underwater drone systems they have at their disposal. These systems are the Deep Sea Cruising AUV Urashima, Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Hyper-Dolphin, Deep Ocean Floor Survey System Deep Tow, and ROV Kaiko. JAMSTEC has also recently begun using the Wave Glider, an autonomous surface drone developed by the US based subsidiary of Boeing, Liquid Robotics.

The Deep Sea Cruising AUV Urashima looks very much like a small submarine that JAMSTEC has been using since 1998. It has a maximum depth of 3,500m and a cruising range greater than 100km. It is powered by a long lasting lithium-ion battery that on February 28, 2005, allowed the Urashima to set a new world record of a continuous cruising distance of 317km. Urashima is equipped with a multibeam echo sounder, side scan sonar, and sub bottom profiler to create comprehensive maps of the ocean floor. The drone is preprogrammed to autonomously scan the ocean floor, making bathymetric maps that help researchers understand what causes earthquakes and how to better predict them in the future.

The Hyper-Dolphin ROV was developed by a team of Canadian engineers in 1999. Tethered to a research vessel the ROV has a diving depth of 4,500m. The tether serves as the drone’s power source. This drone has a retractable sample basket with two manipulator arms. But what is most impressive about the Hyper-Dolphin is the high definition camera system used for taking images even in the darkest, murkiest waters. As explained on JAMSTEC’s website, “This camera integrating an ultra high sensitive super HARP tube can get dynamic high-definition images of deep-sea. The combination of the chip to process all signals and various components such as memories, the signal processing, transformation, etc. achieves a very compact camera driven by low power. The images shot by this camera are transformed through a 3,300 meter optic fiber cable between the camera of the vehicle and the control room onboard.” With the Hyper-Dolphin JAMSTEC has captured images of some of the most elusive deep sea creatures.

Deep Tow is a low speed drone that is used at depths reaching 6,000m while being towed by a vessel above such as the Yokosuka support research vessel. Once Deep Tow is released to its desired depth it is used to collect a wide range of data to create maps of the ocean using multiple sonar systems. Deep Tow also has several high definition camera systems that allow researchers to observe the ocean in real time. Another important function performed with Deep Tow is the placement of sensors on the ocean floor for continued data collection. Deep Tow has contributed to discoveries such as many hydrothermal communities, ship and plane wrecks, and ocean floor formations.

The remotely operated Kaiko has the deepest range of all the underwater drones JAMSTEC utilizes. Kaiko is made up of two parts, a launcher, and a vehicle, and can reach depths of 7,000-11,000m. As explained on JAMSTEC’s website, Kaiko has “Two video cameras, digital still cameras, two high definition video cameras, video camera with a wide-angle fisheye lens, compact monitoring video camera, lights, CTD, and dissolved oxygen meter.” Kaiko is used to explore some of the deepest reaches of the ocean and assist in some of the heavy works necessary for submarine based research conducted by vessels like the Shinkai 6500. Kaiko has been famously used to study the Mariana Trench, the deepest know trench on Earth. JAMSTEC goes on to state, “Notable achievements of the first KAIKO system include collecting specimens of the benthic amphipod, Hirondellea gigas, at a depth of 10,911 meters in the Mariana Trench, and discovering hydrothermal vents and communities in the Indian Ocean.”

JAMSTEC knows that understanding the mystery of the ocean is essential to the continuation of life on Earth. As they proudly state, “JAMSTEC will undertake the initiative to enhance all Japanese research and development capabilities, through a close cooperation with domestic and foreign universities, research institutes, and industries. Further, it will actively share with society the results and knowledge gained from the study of the ocean, Earth, and life.” Using cutting edge technology like drones will be the key to learning as much as we can about the oceans that support all life on Earth.


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