Got bots?: From Kachemak Bay to Gulf of Mexico, robots scour the sea

Posted: Monday, August 23, 2010

A "flying eyeball" has helped the Homer Department of Fish and Game biologists study fish populations for the past five years.

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Photo Courtesy/ Louisiana State University/Gulf Serpent Project
Photo Courtesy/ Louisiana State University/Gulf Serpent Project
Oceanographer Mark Benfield controls a remotely operated vehicle.

Project manager Kenneth Goldman said that he uses the camera-equipped robot, called a remotely operated vehicle, to count yelloweye rockfish and lingcod. The robot itself is a bit bigger than a hard rifle case and weighs 300 pounds outside of the water. Research biologists operate the unmanned robot from a boat with a set of joysticks on a movable console.

"This is one area where playing video games will get you a day job," said oceanographer Mark Benfield. He studies marine life in the Gulf of Mexico with an industrial robot used to repair oil rigs. His work occurs 450 kilometers from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Research biologist Mike Byerly said that the robot feeds video footage to the ship instantaneously through fiber optic cables. His ROV can search at depths up of up to 300 meters. Its combined 2 horsepower engine can push the robot through currents close to two knots.

Dave Lovalvo, president of Eastern Oceanics, has operated ROVs since the early 1980s. He said that ROVs have come a long way from the days when a couple hours of a boat's shaking could disable copper wiring that transmitted footage to the scientists.

He said that today scientists can use smaller models like Byerly's for research or the industrial robots that Benfield operates to perform maintenance on oil facilities, for example. Additional tools and depth-resistant instrumentation can increase the cost to more than $3 million, but simpler research models cost between $10,000 and $100,000. Many companies offer a base robot with equipment mounting capabilities, and attach specific add-ons based on the customers' wants, he said.

"Oil companies place more emphasis on manipulation than expensive cameras and lights," said Lovalvo.

He said that the robots maneuver like helicopters: up and down, side to side and forward and backward.

The mobility of the console that Homer uses allows the operator to stand on the deck and guide the robot back to the boat.

The Homer project has cost around $700,000 in state and federal funds over the past five years. Goldman said that only a third of the cost goes to the ROV. The rest funds sonar mapping by the NOAA.

The biologists are using the robot's high definition cameras to survey yelloweye rockfish and lingcod. Goldman said that they monitor the number of fish caught on camera on board. The information from their target areas will be reviewed, and multiplied by the target area to estimate the fish population present. The Homer scientists plan to bring the robot in future years to examine population changes. So far, the pair have surveyed locations in Resurrection and Kachemak bays. They plan to work in the Prince William Sound as well.

Byerly moves the robot through a sample area within their study zone. Before the ROV goes in, NOAA ships scout the area with sonar beams and generate a map of the terrain. The initial mapping helps him anticipate obstacles.

"I know that in about 20 feet I'm going to come across a huge boulder," he said.

Homer fishery managers currently use data from harvest surveys and trawling samples to make management decisions. Goldman said that the some fish die in the nets during trawling sampling, unlike ROV surveys.

The robots may not kill aquatic animals, but Benfield said that the robots intrude on ordinary marine life. The combination of bright lights and a churning engine alerts fish to the machine's presence. He said that has had to chase camera shy jellyfish on occasion.

"Obviously the moment you put lights down in a system that's that dark some animals will avoid it," Benfield said.

Goldman said that he has to be aware of the light's effect on fish during the study as well. He risks an undercount if species of interest scuttle away as the robot nears. The light draws the attention of other fish as well, which could create the opposite affect. He said that yelloweye rockfish and lingcod have been relatively unaffected by the robot so far.

Lovalvo recently finished a two-month NOAA exploration project in the Sangihe Talaud Region of Indonesia. He mapped an underwater region known as the Coral Triangle, which the robot operator considered one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. The video he took was transmitted via satellite to interested scientists abroad.

He said that the robots offer scientists opportunities in multiple study areas. The unmanned observers provide scientists information about areas that manned submersibles can't access or are extremely dangerous to divers.

He gave the examples of water below Antarctic ice fields, underwater volcanoes, and, in the case of human divers, depths below several thousand feet.

The Homer biologists said that the cameras captured footage of the rockfish and lingcod habitats as well as other marine life in the area. Goldman said that the data is available for other researches, if they are interested in other aspects of the environment.

Benfield said that the video and still photo cameras on his rig observed rare species like oarfish, gill sharks and jellyfish with tentacles around 20 feet long. The Lousiana State University professor also found a rare species of giant jellyfish that he didn't know existed in Gulf.

Benfield said he made use of the robot's 250-horsepower engine to chase down camera-shy jellyfish.

He has studied marine life for four years as part of the Gulf SERPENT project, funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the BP oil company. The oil spill in the area has given him a bit of a break. He said that the oil platforms provide his team a stable area to launch the robots from.

"The only reason we know what the system looked like before the spill is because of the partnership," he said. "We would have had a very limited knowledge of what it looked like otherwise."

Tony Cella can be reached at

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