Mapping a submarine volcano with a robot

Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have recently used their robotic underwater vehicle called ABE (short for Autonomous Benthic Explorer) to 'paint' stunning images of a submarine volcano submerged about a mile deep in the Pacific Ocean, and located about 290 nautical miles northeast of New Zealand. As said the lead researcher, 'This is the first time anywhere in the world that a submarine arc volcano has been mapped and surveyed for hydrothermal venting at such incredibly detailed scale.' Beautiful...

Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have recently used their robotic underwater vehicle called ABE (short for Autonomous Benthic Explorer) to 'paint' stunning images of a submarine volcano submerged about a mile deep in the Pacific Ocean, and located about 290 nautical miles northeast of New Zealand. As said the lead researcher, 'This is the first time anywhere in the world that a submarine arc volcano has been mapped and surveyed for hydrothermal venting at such incredibly detailed scale.' Beautiful...

The Autonomous Benthic Explorer (ABE) from WHOI

You can see above a picture of ABE, the Autonomous Benthic Explorer, developed at WHOI. "With its ability to maintain a stable ride and constant altitude over changing seafloor topography, it can make detailed seafloor maps and collect high-resolution magnetic data." (Photo by Dan Fornari, WHOI) Here is a link to a larger version of this photo.

The Autonomous Benthic Explorer (ABE) from WHOI

And you can see above a map of the active underwater Brothers Volcano created with the help of the ABE. "This view looks from the south into the crater at the summit of the volcano, the site of recent eruptions and ongoing hydrothermal venting. The caldera has two volcanic cones, the smooth one in the left foreground rises about 350 meters (1,150 feet) above the caldera floor to a depth of about 1,100 meters (3,600 feet) below sea surface. A smaller cone to the right, which is probably older but still has an intense hydrothermal system at its summit. (Image courtesy of New Zealand American Submarine Ring of Fire 2007 Exploration, NOAA Vents Program, NOAA-OE.)" Here is a link to a larger version of this picture.

So how ABE was able to paint these maps during a three-week expedition done last July and August? "ABE completed eight dives totaling 96 hours. It "flew" in densely packed lines to cover the entire volcano, maintaining a constant height just above the volcano's rugged, ever-changing contours. The ability to gather sonar data right near the seafloor translates into higher precision—much the way hiking a mountain provides more details than flying high above it. Whereas older sonar maps of Brothers had a resolution of football field-sized features, the new map enables scientists to see features the size of a beefy linebacker or two."

For more information about this robotic underwater vehicle, here are some links of interest.

Finally, if you're a robot, be sure to escape to Dana Yoerger, the ABE's lead engineer. He might not be too nice with you. Here is one of his comments. "We're not shy about throwing the vehicle into really rugged terrain. It did fine and never came close to colliding into anything. It's perfectly comfortable -- if that's the right word to apply to a robot—working in that kind of steep terrain."

Sources: Kristen M. Kusek, Oceanus, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), December 13, 2007; and various websites

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