Expert Report

Future Needs in Deep Submergence Science: Occupied and Unoccupied Vehicles in Basic Ocean Research (2004)

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Deep-diving manned submersibles, such as Alvin, which gained worldwide fame when researchers used it to reach the wreck of Titanic, have helped advance scientific understanding of the deep ocean. Many scholars in this field, however, have noted that the number and capabilities of today's underwater vehicles no longer meet current and expected scientific demand. At the same time, the relative value of manned and unmanned vehicles is often disputed. This report finds that new submersibles--both manned and unmanned--that are more capable than those in the current fleet are needed and would be of great value to the advancement of ocean research.

Key Messages

  • Despite rapid and impressive growth in the capabilities of unoccupied vehicles (both remotely operated and autonomous), scientific demand for HOV access can be expected to remain high.
  • Existing assets are simply too limited in their capabilities and capacity, especially at depths greater than 3,000m, to support the growing demand to conduct research over the necessary geographic and depth range.
  • Experiments and observatory work that require longer time at already well-characterized sites on the seafloor are best conducted with ROVs.
  • High demand for existing deep-diving assets within the NDSF pool has forced asset managers to place a heavy premium on maximizing operational days while minimizing days in transit.
  • Part of this problem can be traced to the inadequacy of the number and capabilities of existing assets to perform the type of scientific effort associated with deep submergence science funded through NSF and NOAA.
  • Surveys of the seafloor are best achieved using tethered vehicles and AUVs.
  • The best approach to deep submergence science is the use of a combination of tools, at different scales.
  • The management of the nation's deep submergence assets should be clarified and revised to ensure the optimal use of both existing and potential assets in future scientific research.
  • The pressure that this geographic restriction has led to can only be expected to increase as ongoing efforts to address a more scientifically diverse set of problems increase the demand for deep-diving vehicles to work in diverse settings
  • The scientific demand for deep diving vehicles (both human-occupied vehicles and remotely operated or autonomous vehicles) is, at present, not being adequately met.
  • Work at depths greater than 6,500m will definitely require unoccupied vehicles, as long as the expense and risk of constructing and operating HOVs capable of work at these great depths discourage their use.