About the Robotic Submarine

More than 10 years ago, NIU scientists Ross Powell and Reed Scherer first proposed using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to explore beneath the Antarctic ice shelf. Powell had previously deployed a simpler ROV in Antarctica, proving that the technology can provide unique and valuable scientific data.

For engineering and construction of the new underwater vehicle, the scientists turned to DOER Marine, an ROV manufacturer that specializes in deep ocean exploration and research and had developed Powell’s earlier ROV.

The result is a one-of-a-kind robotic submarine, first unveiled at the December 2010 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

Underwater ‘transformer’

Two aspects of the submarine, which is rated for a depth of up to 5,000 feet, make it unique.

First, while the ROV is 28 feet in length and weighs 2,200 pounds, it can collapse to a width of just 22 inches in diameter.

This was a necessary feature, because the submarine must be slim enough to fit into a 30-inch-wide ice borehole and be lowered through a half mile of ice into ocean water beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, adjacent to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

“Once under the ice, the robotic submarine undergoes a Transformer-like change in its shape as it prepares for ‘flight mode’ in the seawater,” Scherer says. “It’s an impressive piece of technology that should produce some amazing science.”

Loaded with technology

The second unique aspect of the submarine is its high tech features.

At Lake Tahoe, the ROV will be equipped with three video cameras, a Doppler current meter, instruments to measure water conductivity, temperature and dissolved oxygen, a laser-beam for measuring objects, a device for imaging and mapping the lake-floor surface and an acoustic sounder for profiling layers and structures of sub-floor sediment.

Other equipment will be added for the Antarctic exploration, including a sediment corer and robotic arm with fingers for gathering samples. About two miles of cable will tether the submarine to a control center on the ice in Antarctica and on a barge in Lake Tahoe, where images and data will be collected.

Powell and NIU colleagues previously received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for design and construction of the robotic submarine. Additionally, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, based in San Francisco, contributed $1.3 million for the robotic submarine’s instrumentation and testing.