Ocean exploration - from the comfort of home

Bob Ballard discovered the Titanic in 1985 - and today is using 'telepresence' to visit the ocean's depths...
01 June 2021

Interview with 

Bob Ballard, University of Rhode Island


An underwater view of the ocean surface.


And finally this week - from the mysteries of the sky, to the enigmas of the oceans. Bob Ballard is an oceanographer and explorer who is most famous for having discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, as well as the Bismarck in 1989 and many others. He’s currently working on a new project exploring the vast underwater landscape of the Pacific, using satellites and what’s called ‘telepresence technology’ to visit the ocean’s depths from the comfort of dry land! Chris Smith spoke to Bob... 

Bob - Yeah, rumours of my death are greatly exaggerated - as Mark Twain said, in the state I live in, Connecticut. So I've been lucky to keep going. And I think the technology that I've been developing along the way has made that possible, quite honestly. I mean, I used to do things I can't do now.

Chris - Your biggest claim to fame must be the Titanic story. What was the actual reason for going about that mission?

Bob - Well, I wanted to do it, but I obviously needed sponsors, and the only sponsor I could find was Naval Intelligence that had wanted me to do something else that fortuitously was near the Titanic. We lost two nuclear submarines during the Cold War. I served in the United States Navy, and during the Cold War, we lost the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion, and in the case of the Scorpion we lost nuclear weapons. Ironically, the Titanic is situated between those two submarines. And so when they came to me I was developing this new technology of telepresence. Silicon Valley was heating up - microprocessing, digital imagery, fibre optics, all these things. Because I'm dyslexic and I sort of have an interesting way my mind works, I sort of imagined all of this technology coming together to create what I called a teleoperated robotic system, but I needed someone to fund it. And the Navy funded it if I would do some things for them. My commanding officer was really upset when I found the Titanic, he said, "you were supposed to look for it and not find it!" They thought the public would figure out that I was really doing something for the intelligence on nuclear weapons.

Chris - That telepresence technology now enables you, we were saying at the beginning, to basically explore the oceans from the comfort of your living room.

Bob - Yes. In fact, so can you. You can go live to my website on July 3rd, I'll be at sea with the same command centre behind me. So it doesn't really matter anymore where your body is, we're going to teleport you, and that's fundamentally what we're doing now.

Chris - Tell us how it works, then - so you've got a boat at sea, which is rigged up, but you're on land watching?

Bob - The ship goes to sea for 10 months a year. And on it is my technology, which is robotic. Instead of going up and down like a yo-yo in a submersible, six hours down, six hours back with this, you put it down, you leave it down. Our country has chartered us with the goal to map the 50% of our country, called the EEZ, that lies underneath the ocean. So I'm now going out with my ship, with my robots, to places we've never been.

Chris - Well, let me get this straight: you've got a boat, and it has underwater robots onboard that you control remotely so you don't have to be on them. You don't even have to be on the ship. How do you know where you're going to deploy the ship? How does the ship also get the data back to you in real time? Because obviously there's a lot of information that's coming off the robot from when it's deep underwater - how do you connect and talk to the robot?

Bob - My vehicles are on a fibre optic cable with a very high bandwidth so I can send everything - what they see, what they hear, everything they do, what they touch, our manipulators have force feedback - I can send all that information at the speed of light up to a command centre on the ship, and then on a satellite link back to me. And we send everything up to the satellite I then built at the Graduate School of Oceanography in Rhode Island, what we call the Interspace Centre, so think Houston for NASA. So we have this amazing command centre, it comes down to that command centre. We stand watches on both the ship and at the command centre, just like NASA explores Mars, we're doing the same thing, but on earth underwater. So then we crab along with our vehicles and we come across something. What is it? Well, it could be a shipwreck. It could be a new ecosystem. Whatever's down there - UFO! When we find the UFO, we'll give it to you live, OK!

Chris - This is like a new age in exploration really isn't it? Because you can lead missions, but you don't physically have to be there. Hence the 'telepresence' moniker that you have attached to it.

Bob - You can move your spirit at the speed of light, it's indestructible - so we simply move your spirit. This is my - I don't know if you saw the movie Avatar?

Chris - I have seen Avatar...

Bob - Well remember in the movie, there was the war veteran Jake, paralysed war veteran, his legs didn't work. They laid him on a slab next to a Na'vi - 10 feet long, blue-green - and then Jake wakes up in the Na'vi, right? And the Na'vi's eyes come on. What did Jake do the moment he realised he was in the Na'vi in the movie? He got up and ran out of the room. Here's my point - he didn't care that he had blue-green legs and funny ears, but he could run. That's my Na'vi. And I simply move into it, and I do it at the speed of light. So here's what happens: we always make discoveries at 2 o'clock in the morning somewhere on the planet. Right here we have a book with all of the doctors on call. "If you discover animals, call me," "if you discover a shipwreck"... so the watch leader simply picks up the phone and the person wakes up and we say, "this is the Interspace Centre calling. Could you boot up your laptop?" So they're in bed, they boot up their laptop, they're still laying in bed and we stream them the live discoveries at this second and say, "what do you think?" Almost 99.9% of the time, they say, "that's important! I'm out of bed!"


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