Benthic Rover, Benthic Rover

This computer drawing shows some of the key components of the Benthic Rover. Image: © 2008 MBARI

This computer drawing shows some of the key components of the Benthic Rover. Image: © 2008 MBARI

Send that data right over.  The absolute coolest gadget to hit deep-sea science is is the Benthic Rover, the deep-sea equivalent of the Spirit and Opportunity.  The Benthic Rover, the brain child of deep-sea biologist Ken Smith, and brought to life by engineers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, is approximately of small compact car.  The rover slowly creeps (3 feet per minute to minimize kicking up sediment) across the seafloor taking photographs of the animals and sediment in its path. Every three to five meters it stops and makes a series of measurements on the community respiration (i.e. oxygen consumption) of organisms living in the seafloor sediment. The rover is also totally tricked out with an optical sensor that can scan the seafloor to measure how much food has arrived recently from the surface water. Why? To try to understand of how deep-sea organisms acquire enough food to survive…a favorite question of mine as well. In the words of the press release

Most life in the deep sea feeds on particles of organic debris, known as marine snow, which drift slowly down from the sunlit surface layers of the ocean. But even after decades of research, marine biologists have not been able to figure out how the small amount of nutrition in marine snow can support the large numbers of organisms that live on and in seafloor sediment.

The Benthic Rover makes its way across the deep seafloor during a trial run in 2007. The "brains" of the vehicle are protected by a spherical titanium pressure housing. The orange and yellow objects are made of incompressible foam, whose buoyancy makes the Rover light enough underwater so that it won't sink into the soft deep-sea mud. Image: © 2007 MBARI

The Benthic Rover makes its way across the deep seafloor during a trial run in 2007. The "brains" of the vehicle are protected by a spherical titanium pressure housing. The orange and yellow objects are made of incompressible foam, whose buoyancy makes the Rover light enough underwater so that it won't sink into the soft deep-sea mud. Image: © 2007 MBARI

A series of foam packs make the 3,000 pound vehicle semi-bouyant at just 100 lbs in seawater, to prevent the rover from sinking in the soft oozy mud that dominates the abyssal plains. Tank-like treads keep the vehicle moving across the sediment and custom-made titanium pressure spheres house the computer and electronic needed to drive the vehicle.  Best yet the bad boy is programmable.  Here’s your mission, come back to me when you have some data!

Image credit: (c) 2007 MBARI  The Benthic Rover on the seafloor off Central California

Image credit: (c) 2007 MBARI The Benthic Rover on the seafloor off Central California

However, during this summer the Benthic rover was tethered to newly created Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS), an underwater observatory that provide power and data link to the vehicle. “Hooking up the Rover to the observatory opened up a whole new world of interactivity. Usually when we deploy the Rover, we have little or no communication with the vehicle. We drop it overboard, cross our fingers, and hope that it works.” In this case, however, the observatory connection allowed MBARI researchers to fine tune the Rover’s performance and view its data, videos, and still images in real time. Sherman recalls, “One weekend I was at home, with my laptop on the kitchen table, controlling the vehicle and watching the live video from 900 meters below the surface of Monterey Bay. It was amazing!”

An now for the rover in action!

Dr. M (1743 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (http://www.scienceofthesouth.com/), connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.


7 comments on “Benthic Rover, Benthic Rover
  1. Say, what is the thing drifting down the left-hand side of the video? Some sort of logo? debris? a jellyfish? I can’t tell. :D

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