Scientists Using Underwater Drones to Study Hawaii’s Liliʻuokalani Ridge Seamounts

As Dorthy Gale, played by Judy Garland, stepped onto the 1939 interpretation of Frank L. Baum’s “Yellow Brick Road”, she set off to find the mythical Emerald City. Along the way, she was joined by a troop of loyal characters all set on answering their innermost questions on life. Earlier this year, 122 years after Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a group of scientists aboard the EV Nautilus discovered a real life yellow brick road near Hawaii’s Liliʻuokalani Ridge Seamounts. The discovery was made with a device that would seem at home in one of Baum’s 17 imaginative Oz books, a drone.

In 2021, lead scientists Beth Orcutt and Valerie Finlayson, with expedition leader Dwight Coleman began the Luʻuaeaahikiikalipolipo expedition to map the Liliʻuokalani Ridge Seamounts. Using drones, the team set out, like Dorthy and her friends, to answer questions. The team’s question was how the thousands of seamounts in the Central and West Pacific Ocean originated and influenced hotspot volcanic chains. In April of 2022, the team returned for the Luʻuaeaahikiikekumu expedition, once again using drones to collect the first visual documentation of the region.

The EV Nautilus is a 223ft research vessel owned by the Ocean Exploration Trust. It is under the directorship of retired American Naval officer and University of Rhode Island Professor of Oceanography Robert Ballard, who is most famous for discovering the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismark, a German battleship. The EV Nautilus, whose home port is the AltaSea facility in the Port of Los Angeles, CA, is fully equipped with everything needed for deep sea exploration. It has a data processing and visualization lab, wet lab, rack room, and production studio. But the star of the EV Nautilus is the array of ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles) used to conduct research at depths of 13,000ft.

The drones deployed by the EV Nautilus are the Hercules, Little Hercules, Argus, and Atlanta. Each drone has its own benefits, all of which complement each other. The drones have sensors that can test temperatures, salinity, and chemicals in the water and the ocean floor. Some of the drones have arms with delicate grasping claws for collecting biological samples. These samples are stored within specially designed chambers on the drone. But one of the most important features of the drones is their ability to relay live video streams to scientists onboard the EV Natilus.

In one of the live-streamed drone videos taken by the Hercules, the Luʻuaeaahikiikekumu expedition team stumbled upon what looks like a neatly paved brick road traveling through a dried out lake bed. The team excitedly and jokingly called it the yellow brick road leading to the lost city of Atlantis. “The unique 90-degree fractures are likely related to heating and cooling stress from multiple eruptions at this baked margin,” the team explained. The team goes on to say that by using drones, “Our exploration of this never-before-surveyed area is helping researchers take a deeper look at life on and within the rocky slopes of these deep, ancient seamounts…These studies will help provide baseline information on the living communities of seamounts which can inform management and conservation measures.” While Dorthy and her friends ventured down the yellow brick road to ask the Wizard of Oz their burning questions, the scientist on board the EV Nautilus are using drones to ask and answer their own questions.

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