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Meet the Robots Crawling Along the Ocean Floor

Jason can dive deeper than any human and stay underwater for days on end.

by Melissa Cronin
Aug 14 2015, 9:00am

At four miles deep, the ocean is dark and quiet. Under pressure equal to 639 atmospheres, a robotic arm shoots up through the water. The arm belongs to a massive box, which is attached by a 6-mile cord to a vessel floating in the waves above. The robot's name is Jason, and it's one soldier in an army of machines that ocean scientists are deploying across the ocean's floor.

Created in 1988, Jason belongs to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and is known as a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). Using its six electric thrusters, Jason can move up, down, forward, backward and sideways, or simply fall to the ocean's bottom at a speed of 100 feet per minute. It is an oceanographer's dream—unlike manned submersibles, which have to surface every night, Jason can dive deeper, stay underwater for days on end, and gather information about the seafloor that, until recently, was impossible to get.

Photo by David Levin, courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

"A full 98 percent of the ocean floor is within 6,500 meters of the sea surface," Adam Soule, chief scientist of the National Deep Submergence Facility at WHOI, told Motherboard. "If you can go that deep, you can go to almost any place on the planet."

Jason caught footage of the first recorded deep-sea volcano actively erupting molten lava on the seafloor in stunning clarity off the coast of the Samoan Islands in 2009.

YouTube/WHOI/National Science Foundation

In 2012, Jason captured the first stunning glimpse at the deep-sea shrimp that live at one of the planet's hottest black smoker hydrothermal vents, where the water reaches a balmy 750°F.

Photo by Chris German and the Jason Group, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

But Jason's not alone down there in the deep. WHOI has several other National Science Foundation-funded robots, including Jason's partner vehicle Madea, an autonomous (no cord) vehicle named Sentry that can dive to a depth of 3 miles at a speed of 40 meters (about 130 feet) per minute, and Alvin, a three-person research submarine that has plunked down more than 2,500 scientists and observers on the bottom of the ocean. And WHOI's little family of robots is just the start—there are hundreds of ROVs used by scientists at institutions around the world to scour the ocean floor.

For years, Jason and its comrades have been gathering invaluable data for scientists in multiple fiends. It's only recently, though, that ROVs and other submersible robots have become mercenaries in the battle to save the ocean's most threatened places.

In 2011 and 2013, an ROV deployed off the coast of Oregon glimpsed coldwater corals and sponges that were providing critical habitat for rockfish and others.

Vimeo/Oceana

At a depth of 1,000 feet, the orangey-red rockfish, sometimes called striped bass, dotted the sea floor like little red gumdrops.

Oceana

Oceana, the organization that was controlling the robots, thinks that the ROV footage it gathered is the key to gaining critical protection for the area for good. It's one of the growing number of instances in which data from underwater vehicles can be used by conservationists to make a case for parceling off protected areas.

Vimeo/Oceana

The group used its findings and footage as part of a proposal asking the Pacific Fishery Management Council to grant protection to a massive 140,000 square-mile stretch of seafloor off the West Coast from bottom trawling, a destructive fishing method that essentially rips up the bottom of the ocean and dumps it onto the deck of a fishing vessel. The final call on the protection will come in September 2016.

Oceana

Besides being useful for conservation, ROVs and other submersibles have shown scientists the world beyond SCUBA divers' reach—a world that makes up most of the ocean. And it's not just for finding finding new fish or creating protected areas, said Soule.

"There are remarkable discoveries to be made that help explain why were here," he said. "Life could've originated in hydrothermal vents in ocean. There's a limitless expanse of knowledge to be gained in the oceans and without those tools, we can't get there."

Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.