There appears to be no limit to the capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, with technology pushing them to achieve feats few would have thought possible a decade or so ago. NASA’s propulsion laboratory, have joined forces with WHOI – Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – to design and build a drone that could set the new standard for deep sea exploration.
Orpheus – The Underwater Drone:
In fact, Orpheus does a lot more than simply travel underwater; this small autonomous robot-like drone can travel down to the very depths of the world’s deepest oceans, some of which have never been seen before, let alone explored. There is even the hope that one day, this tiny drone may venture as far as the solar system and explore the extraterrestrial world’s oceans.
Orpheus was deployed off the waters of Cape Cod back in September 2018, and once it had completed its mission, it was successfully brought out of the water, much to the relief of the deep-sea biologists and scientists involved in the mission. One of the biologists present that day had sent a previously designed autonomous craft far many miles beneath the oceans surface, but it had never re-emerged, lost forever in the murky depths.
Designed to land 36,000 feet down on the deepest part of the ocean floor, the craft’s job is to sift through the ground – never explored before, remember – gather up samples and bring them back up to the surface.
How successful was Orpheus in its first underwater mission?
Quite apart from the fact that the robot returned to the surface when recalled, it had driven alone into the deepest depths of the ocean for a full hour with no human at the controls. There are 4 cameras attached to the drone, with each one taking images that would later be pieced together, but the hope is to have a fleet of them working together. So successful was Orpheus’s first mission, that it has driven scientists and tech designers to continue improving upon its capabilities. The craft was able to successfully provide 3D images of the sea floor to those waiting up on dry land, proving that it can explore, map and photograph such a murky and potentially dangerous area of the ocean with no human at the controls, and with no tangible link from craft to human.
What the future holds for autonomous deep sea exploration:
With vast areas of the worlds oceans yet to be explored, scientists, biologists, and charities are pooling their funds to help facilitate more ocean exploration missions, including the research missions undertaken by Orpheus. With Orpheus being a mere 5 feet in length and weighing only around 550 pounds, there is much more scope for developing such crafts, since the cost is significantly lower and it’s easier to do; conventional robotic exploration crafts or ROV’s are the size of a large car and are far more expensive to create.
Over the next couple of years, Orpheus and other autonomous vehicles like it will employ image-recognition technology, such as that which is currently used in autonomous cars, and while it has yet to enter the hadopelagic zone, or hadal zone (the deepest region of the ocean lying within oceanic trenches), there is hope that with its ability to endure pressure, this may be a possibility one day.
It seems as if the deepest darkest, murkiest and previously uncharted depths of the world’s oceans, may not be such a mystery to us all for much longer.