Remotely operated submersibles; propulsion systems; application of close loop control of remotely operated vehicles; introduction of remotely operated systems for oceanographic research.
Over the past thirty years, I have had the privilege of working in a field rich with rewards. Without question, the experience of working at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has provided my career with wonderful challenges and opportunities. These have given me the chance to make a range of important contributions in the area of undersea robotics. Over this period of time, much has changed; we have gone from deep ocean survey tools being simple towed vehicles, having the limited ability to “snap pictures”, to today’s tethered and untethered robots exhibiting ever-increasing capabilities to perform a range of complex tasks. For the engineer, there can be no better reward than to have ones’ work herald new opportunities and transform how we understand our environment. In this short narrative, I hope to offer personal thoughts on my role by providing an historical perspective on my experience to date, leading to present challenges and a view forward outlining future objectives and opportunities.
Shortly after I started at WHOI in 1985, a renowned Geologist was notably quoted as saying “manned submersibles are doomed” and that the future belonged not to the past practice of direct human exploration but rather to a new generation of surrogate robotic explorers. The implication was that tethered robots would predominate. Over the intervening period, I believe this prophecy remains unfulfilled. Indeed, it may not be human exploration using submersibles that is doomed but the imagined superseding generation of tethered robots! I come to this conclusion not as the result of some profound inspirational revelation, but rather as the result of seeing a clearer complementary role for robots when teamed with humans, cast against the backdrop of new technologies. I believe this coupling of exploration between humans and technology presents the richest challenge to address as I move into what might be called a more strategic phase of my career.
Before joining WHOI, I spent the early stages of my career working in the commercial area of robotic vehicle development servicing the oil and gas industry and to a lesser extent the Department of Defense. It was during my time working at Benthos Inc. that I became aware of the pending development of full ocean depth robots about to start at WHOI with funding from the U.S. Navy, under the leadership of Bob Ballard. As a young engineer, joining this effort was a dream come true, offering new challenges to learn by doing. The subsequent developments of Jason Junior, Jason and Jason 2 provided increasing levels of technical challenge, ranging from the detailed mechanical design of vehicle systems to a more programmatic involvement in developing new vehicles. Aside from the systems-level technical challenges, I naturally became more involved in the act of bringing these kinds of vehicles into use by the deep submergence scientific communities. While the challenges of getting complex equipment to function at 6,000 meters has been a great source of enjoyment, I have come to appreciate the more abstract objective of bringing new tools into use for science as my most rewarding achievement. This latter objective has involved not only ensuring the vehicles are capable of meeting the need but also working closely with the scientific community. The enterprise of establishing these systems such as Jason and Jason 2 as valuable tools, having a legitimate place in aiding scientific discovery has been at least as difficult. To achieve these goals has involved leading many expeditions at sea and establishing credibility for WHOI’s role in this kind of technological development while also being the public face of the Jason system, working closely to bring new technology to investigators. The rewards have been gaining the personal respect of the community to deliver on what we have set out to do; bringing robots into acceptance as valuable tools. Ultimately, this warranted their inclusion as Research Facilities along side the primary tool of the ALVIN submersible within the National Deep Submergence Facility (NDSF). My role in this effort has been important and a defining achievement of which I am proud.
With the retirement of Barrie Walden in 2008, I assumed leadership of the NDSF. An important part of this responsibility has been to manage a period of transition to bring together a team to lead NDSF. Important changes have involved managing the human capital so critical to proper function of what NDSF does for the oceanographic community. There are no books nor other formal resources telling us how to continue the tradition of achievement and excellence; this all must come from nurturing our people by providing a suitable atmosphere to provide our staff with the opportunities to contribute, grow and fulfill aspirations to contribute and excel. I believe these efforts have thus far been successful but require constant vigilance to remaining effective.
A guiding philosophical principal has been the need to ensure we remain challenged by providing ongoing opportunities for technological development and career growth, while balancing this against the need to ensure our vehicles and services deliver as required. I believe that these challenges are key to providing good people with the upward mobility naturally required to ensure a fulfilling career. To this end, I am active in bringing in development opportunities, not only to improve what we have but also, when appropriate, significantly change what we can do for science.
Our ongoing development of the hybrid vehicle Nereus is a prime example of what I feel is my important continually evolving contribution to the oceanographic community. There is no other place than WHOI where the development of such a new system would have been possible. We have been able to tap our enduring desire to innovate with the practical ability to execute, thereby developing a vehicle type that will perhaps change the prophetic words of “manned submersibles are doomed” to “tethered vehicles are doomed”. By combining the attributes of an autonomous vehicle with those of a tethered vehicle, it seems probable that a re-definition of what “tethered vehicle” means is inevitable.
For an engineer with my background the Nereus vehicle development would appear to represent the “pinnacle” of achievement for there can be no greater challenge than building a robot to go to the deepest part of the world’s oceans. Indeed, I am very pleased with how this project has achieved this objective. As with the other vehicle developments, I hope and trust that Nereus will enable new discoveries. I believe part of the Nereus’ legacy, will be to once again emphasize how WHOI can lead in deep-sea technology development.
Exploration of our oceans is constrained by the need for cost-effective vehicles to explore what we can presently reach and open up the potential to access new parts of the deep sea. The present-generation ROVs such as Jason 2, have extended humans’ reach into the oceans in important ways. Still, deep-water operations with long, heavy tether cables result in high operating costs, including ships with specialized positioning systems, large A-frames and winch systems. Eliminating the need for tethers would change the game of what underwater robotic vehicles cost and how they are used. I believe WHOI is leading the development of several key emerging technologies and capabilities that put us on the brink of “cutting the cord” and building a completely untethered remotely operated vehicle as a derivative to the Nereus. I see our developments in vehicles, control systems software, navigation and communications as important enablers that have the realistic, near term potential to transform how we think of robotic activities for the future. It has been said that there exists a perfect storm of opportunity for WHOI in this area and I am committed to using my experience to move this specific agenda forward.
In summary, I believe the record shows an ability to conceive and execute on new and complex projects within a high-risk, high-return environment. New technologies and the vehicle systems they enable will continue to be an important part of my career. I remain committed to undertaking such work within the framework of the NDSF and supporting the ongoing health and future growth of this important part of the Institution. Finally, I recognize the important responsibility I shoulder to encourage and maintain WHOI’s human capital. Pursuing future technological development opportunities that are both transformational to science and challenging to our staff will help to ensure our ability to innovate and enable the best science into the future.
- WHOI Senior Technical Staff Award, 2000.
- W.M. Keck Technology Innovation Award, 1/01/2000-3/31/03.
- Green Technology Innovation Award
- GlobalSpec Great Moments in Engineering Award
B.S.: Mechanical/ Ocean Engineering. 1980. University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI.
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