Exploring Earth's Final Frontier: The Ocean

19 April 2018
Posted by Megan Ray Nichols.

We spend so much time looking at the stars that we often forget we have a Final Frontier right here on Earth. Even today, in 2018, more than 95% of the ocean's depths remain unexplored. Much of this is due to the depths we would need to reach to explore the oceans — we can build technology to protect us against the vacuum of space, but we're currently unable to travel below a certain depth due to the extreme pressures at these depths. That's where automated unmanned vehicles, or AUVs, come in. What do we currently use AUVs for, and how could they shape future ocean exploration?

Current AUV Uses

AUVs have come a long way from the basic torpedo shape that would simply move forward once they were placed at a target depth. They're used by the military and by scientists around the globe who are studying the ocean's depths and the creatures that live there.

In the military, they're used for everything from surveillance and reconnaissance to anti-submarine warfare because they can be programmed to complete tasks autonomously nearly anywhere in the world. These particular AUVs can also be used in commercial applications, helping with things like search and rescue, water sampling and fishery research.

For scientific research, these devices have a plethora of applications. Engineers make sure to protect their devices from the ocean environment by sealing out water. Once all electronics are waterproofed, they can be programmed to anything.  Some typical tasks AUVs perform include recording video of deep-sea species to planting trackers on large migrating mammals or even taking water samples from specific areas. AUVs can also be equipped with rechargeable power cells, fuel cells or even solar panels and batteries to allow them to recharge themselves as needed, moving between the surface and the water's depths.

Types of AUVs

AUVs are as varied as the kind of work they're able to do, but some are better able to handle the massive pressures at depth than others. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute of Massachusetts, or WHOI, uses a variety of different AUVs like their Sentry, which can reach depths of up to 6,000 meters, and Remus, a little torpedo-shaped AUV that is designed for coastal monitoring.

On the other side of the pond, the Naval Oceanography Center has developed the ecoSUBu, a small AUV that is designed to work in a group of other similar subs, enabling them to survey large area very quickly and much more accurately than a single AUV working alone.

The goal of all of these devices is to enable us to better understand the ocean, especially the places that we can't hope to reach with current submersible technology.

The Importance of Deep-Sea Exploration

Why is it so important for us to continue to explore our oceans, especially the deep, dark areas that we can't currently reach?

We've already made so many amazing discoveries in the ocean, even if we don't include the stunning creatures that make their home in the water. The ocean could also be the place where we find the cure for cancer or the common cold — if we take the time to look. Even today, one species of Caribbean sponge is being tested as an antiretroviral for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. The blood of a horseshoe crab is currently used by the FDA to test new drugs for bacterial contamination because it clots so fiercely in response to bacteria.

Currently, ocean-based discoveries are being studied as potential treatments for everything from HIV/AIDS to cancer, TB and dengue fever — and these are just species in areas that we're able to visit regularly.

Outside of the medical applications, we may be able to find new food sources and new energy resources in the ocean's depths. Studying the ocean floor could give us clues about earthquakes, allowing us to predict them more accurately.

It also helps to fuel innovation — even now, we haven't figured out how to take humans to the deepest points of the ocean. It will take all of our collective intelligence to overcome that challenge, fueling human innovation in the process.

Until we can travel to the bottom of the sea ourselves, it will be up to AUVs and the people who program them to travel where we cannot.

The Ocean or Outer Space?

With all the focus on exploring the cosmos, why should we even be spending time looking down at our own planet and the oceans that cover roughly 70 percent of its surface?

Simply put, because we may never get another.

Sure, we might find another planet capable of supporting life. That planet might even have oceans, but we may never find a planet with an ocean as rich and diverse as the one on our own home planet. We hear news about the death of the coral reefs due to global warming or the massive floating island of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but we shrug it off as soon as news of a new rocket launch or meteor shower crosses our screen.

Now, we're not saying that we shouldn't explore the universe — quite the opposite in fact. We should be striving to reach our hands out into the stars and make a home there, but not at the expense of the things we already have right here.

There are creatures at the bottom of the ocean we've never seen alive — the only hints we have that they might exist come in the form of bodies that have floated to the surface or washed ashore. We have no idea what might be waiting for us down there, and while we might not find a school of massive prehistoric predators waiting for us, what we will find could potentially change the way we look at the oceans. Deep-sea ocean exploration is quite literally Earth's final frontier — and right now, only AUVs can show us the way.

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