Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
By Matt Dozier

Picture this: you’re a marine scientist studying the deep ocean. From the darkened control room on your research boat, you guide a remotely operated vehicle (called an ROV) over the alien landscape more than 500 feet below the surface. The ROV’s cameras fill your video screens with images of strange and wonderful creatures. You want to collect a few specimens for closer study, so you carefully pluck a colorful anemone from the muddy seafloor using the robot’s mechanical arm. What do you do next?

Ups and Downs

Well, if you’re a scientist at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, the answer to that question has long been “steer the ROV all the way back up to the surface, use a crane to hoist it out of the water and onto the deck, retrieve your specimen, and repeat.” Over and over, one sample at a time, like a claw-grabber arcade game.

At least, that was the routine with the old Phantom S2 the sanctuary has been using to explore the depths of the Gulf of Mexico for over a decade. “We’ve had our ups and downs with the Phantom, quite literally,” said research coordinator Emma Hickerson.

Mohawk ROV

But with the addition of a brand-new, state-of-the-art “Mohawk” ROV — an early Christmas present from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation — to the sanctuary’s scientific arsenal, all that is about to change.

Out with the Old

You don’t need to be an engineer to pick out the differences between Phantom and Mohawk. The former is little more than a hollow frame of metal tubing with a few cameras and propellers, while the latter is sleek and solid, bristling with high-tech tools and omnidirectional thrusters.

new and old rovs

Despite its shortcomings, the Phantom has completed around 400 dives over 24 expeditions, most of them with pilot Lance Horn of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Undersea Vehicles Program at the controls. Hickerson estimated that the 25-year-old ROV has taken some 28,000 photographs and collected 400 marine life samples — an average of, yes, about one sample per dive.

According to Hickerson, Horn has been “babying” the temperamental ROV for the past decade, nursing it back to health after numerous mechanical failures. “He’s practically married to the vehicle,” she joked. The ROV has certainly been an asset to the sanctuary over the years, but with its low-bandwidth uplink (so no HD photos or video) and aforementioned limitations when it comes to gathering samples, even Horn agreed it was time for an upgrade.

In with the New

Hickerson said the Mohawk was paid for by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and will be housed at UNC Wilmington, where Horn’s team will handle maintenance and pilot the ROV for the sanctuary and other scientific institutions (on request). “It’s a win-win situation for us,” she said.

Giant Caribbean Sea Anemone

On the Mohawk’s initial test run in October, the shiny new ROV gave the science team a thrilling taste of what it can do, from maneuvering effortlessly in all directions to recording beautiful HD video of a giant sea anemone. But the most exciting part is still to come: a five-function manipulator arm and collection carousel, capable of snatching sample after sample, is set to be added to the ROV’s repertoire by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in early 2014.

That means more samples, more science, and — best of all — fewer trips back to the surface.

Follow all of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary’s exciting deep-sea scientific expeditions in 2014 at http://flowergarden.noaa.gov.

All images and footage courtesty of ONMS/FGBNMS.

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