The planet Earth is often called the Blue Planet because of how it appears from space satellite images. The reason why the Earth looks so blue is that most of its surfaces, more than 70%, is covered by water. The World Ocean, the total of all the water bodies on Earth, stretches over 139.7 million square miles and has an approximate volume of 320.3 million cubic miles. Because of its vastness, humans have only been able to explore about 5% of the World Ocean. It should come as no surprise that scientists are constantly making new oceanic discoveries since so little of the oceans have been studied so far. Yet still, when we hear of discoveries of living organisms or underwater structures it can be baffling.
Over the last two decades, scientists have made tremendous progress in oceanic exploration. Enabling this has been the progression of technology like drones that allow scientists to reach areas of the deep like never before. Underwater drones, both large and small, autonomous or remotely operated, have become highly advanced. This past autumn, scientists made a mind blowing discovery of a giant underwater structure in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland, Australia with the help of drones.
In March of 2009, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy founded the Schmidt Ocean Institute a “private non-profit operating foundation established to advance oceanographic research, discovery, and knowledge, and catalyze sharing of information about the oceans,” as stated on the website. The institute supports researchers from around the world with a state of the art research vessel, the R/V Falkor, named in honor of the luckdragon from the Neverending Story. Currently, Dr. Robin Beaman is leading a team of researchers aboard the Falkor on a 12 month mission called Northern Depths of the Great Barrier Reef. Dr. Beaman is a marine geologist based out of James Cook University in Cairns, Australia who has been using drones to create maps of the ocean floor.
Schmidt Institute’s main underwater drone is a custom built Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) called ROV SuBastian, also named after a character from The Neverending Story. SuBastian is about the size and weight of a minivan that stays in contact with the Falkor through a tether at all times. On average, it remains in the water for 8 hour stretches, but because it is tethered to and powered by the ship, it could remain underwater for as long as necessary. It has a dive depth of around 15,000ft and can travel at speeds of 0.5-3 knots. And though the SuBastian is not an aerial drone, it is still operated by a lead pilot, along with assistant pilots that control the various research functions aboard the drone.
On October 25, 2020, Dr. Beaman’s ROV SuBastian pilot guided the drone along the ocean floor by the Great Barrier Reef to an incredible structure they had discovered days earlier. What they had found was the first discovery of such a structure in 120 years, a massive detached coral reef. It is over 1,640feet tall, taller than the Empire State Building. Understanding the immensity behind this discovery, the October 25th mission was live streamed on the Schmidt Institute’s website and YouTube channel from the ROV’s multiple cameras. As stated in the live stream’s description, “The dive will cross the broader base, then climb the steep flanks of the reef to the summit at about 50 m depth – an underwater mountain climb to find out what is living on this newly discovered reef.”
The live stream lasted for about 4 hours and gave viewers an amazing point of view of how an underwater drone conducts research. The video image was crystal clear as you watch the ROV’s robotic arms use various attachments to collect and deposit samples into collection boxes. The camera zoomed in on sea cucumbers, anemones, shrimp, other small fish, and many tracks and trails left by sea creatures while exploring the reef. Dr. Beaman became noticeably excited when the drone came upon a nautilus shell, and though its previous creature had left the shell behind, it was now home to an anemone. They found a lone, orange, coral like plant that seemed to have some type of sea stars resting on its branches. Using the drone’s claw, the team delicately picked it and placed it into a bio-box to be brought up for examination along with many other samples.
At the beginning of the live stream, Dr. Beaman remarked that many people have questioned how such a large structure has remained hidden within the Great Barrier Reef Park, an area of the vast oceans that has been heavily studied. He responded that even though there has been plenty of exploration at the park, only small snippets of it have been seen. Using drones and bathymetric mapping techniques those snippets can be enlarged to make complete pictures of the ocean floor. “This unexpected discovery affirms that we continue to find unknown structures and new species in our Ocean,” said Wendy Schmidt. “The state of our knowledge about what’s in the Ocean has long been so limited. Thanks to new technologies that work as our eyes, ears, and hands in the deep ocean, we have the capacity to explore like never before. New oceanscapes are opening to us, revealing the ecosystems and diverse life forms that share the planet with us.”