Robert Ballard: beam me down

One of the world's greatest living explorers, Dr Robert Ballard, talks to E&T about how remote control technology can help discover new wrecks and protect previous finds like Titanic.

Robert Ballard (more popularly known as Bob Ballard) has always been interested in technology. Among his eye-catching innovations has been the use of Pepper's Ghost - the system that Disney uses to create ghostly apparitions in its haunted house attractions, and which allows him to appear as a hologram in one of the institutes that he works with.

This is not the only foray Ballard has made into the world of fantasy. As the founder the Institute for Exploration, which specialises in underwater archaeology and geology, he has mounted numerous expeditions to explore areas such as the Black Sea and Santorini. Santorini is the place that many of the more fanciful explorers think may be the location of the lost city of Atlantis.

Ballard, however, is rooted in reality. He acually believes that Atlantis is likely to be fiction. "It's like the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot," he says. "People like to have things like UFOs. I guess it gets over the mundane problem of having to live on Earth with what is really here."

Pepper's Ghost

For all his innovative thinking, then, Ballard has a very real goal in mind."Pepper's Ghost is an amazing technology that is actually reflective of a lot of things that are happening in our society now that are moving us towards what we call electronic travel or telepresence," he explains. "We have being doing a tremendous amount of work on the development of the new ship of exploration - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Okeanos Explorer. The idea is to design a ship so that experts don't need to leave the university. They will be beamed to the site of a discovery and take over command control but never physically leave their home. We call it 'experts on call'. We are able to network scientists to the bottom of the ocean from consoles all over the US using the Internet."

A number of consoles have already been built (see box on p44). "I have two myself," says Ballard. "I have one in each of my offices. I have a studio in my office in the Institute for Exploration, which is a duplicate of the centre on my ship, and is a duplicate of the one on Okeanos Explorer. I also have one over at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School Of Oceanography." Work has also been completed on a $20m building housing something that Ballard calls the 'inner-space centre'.

"It is basically a command control centre much like Houston has for work with the space shuttle. It is a large room, two storeys high. It has a big plasma wall, and people sitting at consoles are in communication with a ship. We see exactly what the robots are seeing on remote parts of the planet, beamed in by high-bandwidth satellite and then fibre to the inner-space centre."

The inner-space centre is also connected to a growing number of consoles at universities and educational centres. "We probably have about nine of them now in Canada and the US, but I'm sure they will grow around the planet." These consoles are replicas of those onboard ship. "When you sit down at them you have three colour plasmas and six CRT displays and 35 channels of two-way audio, so once you sit at this console you have entered the game and it doesn't matter where you are physically."

Robotic ships

The system is not just geared to exploration but has been designed to educate as well. "We have cameras on our ships that are controllable from a website - we call them robocams. They are on the aft deck, the main lab and in the control room and we can actually let kids operate them. There is a gated website where we have the controls that you can operate with a mouse to pan, tilt, zoom and focus."

Ballard explains that the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) can be controlled by the scientists - even game-savvy children can operate them - but they are usually left to the ROV pilots as "the pilots are much better at it".

"We have been working to bring these ships online with this new telepresence/expert on call paradigm concept, but we are pushing that even further by trying to move our senior engineers ashore. The whole idea is to take more and more people out of harm's way like they do with the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle being used in Afghanistan.

"It is silly to have very expensive people sitting around on ships waiting for something to break when they can just be brought in when needed. Our system allows the engineers access to all the computers on the ship from the beach. I would imagine that the ships would become robotic themselves in the end or will be operated with very small crews.

"Clearly, we are committed to further developing telepresence and ultimately, electronic travel. I am happy to be part of the experiment as I am reaping the benefits of it many years before anybody else."

"We have another ship which I have just acquired - a German research ship that we have just renamed the Nautilus," says Ballard. "We expect to be online in August and it work in the Mediterranean and Black Sea all next year and hopefully into the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea - we are just figuring out how to get past Somalia's pirates."

We are also working with the navy on one of its pathfinder survey ships to cover the Atlantic to complete our goal, which we have been working on for a year now, to have three ships that are exploring different major ocean basins."

Titanic and the law of sea convention

Ballard has always been a little obsessed by the Titanic, the ship he eventually discovered in 1985 after many years of searching. He has been particularly vocal about the plundering of the ship that has gone on since and when asked what was happening about it he told E&T; "Fortunately, very little is happening to the Titanic - it is being left alone - I think the salvagers are done and I don't think they are doing any more tourist dives - I think the economy has taken care of that.

I know that there are efforts afoot with the US and UK and other countries to create a treaty to protect the ship from continued destruction by salvagers and visitors. I am optimistic that with the new administration the Law of the Sea Convention will finally get approved and it will take a more proactive role in maritime law and the Titanic memorial act will be strengthened."

Ballard has always had an idea to wire up the Titanic with remote cameras to enable everybody to experience the thrill of undersea exploration on what is probably the most famous ship in the world. However, it is not going to be easy as Titanic is some 4km down and more than 700km out in the Atlantic. However, Ballard is already making small steps using the technology required. 

"We are building underwater museums right now in the Black Sea off the Ukraine and off Turkey," he says. "We are preparing sites for such remote camera systems but we will do it in much shallower water before we take on the Titanic."

They are likely to use the same technologies as currently being used in underwater observatories, he explains, "tapping into the network once it is established, whether it is a hardwire ashore or whether it goes up to a buoy and onwards through a satellite.

"The ocean observatory is a clear example of how to wire up the bottom.

"We are naturally working with the development of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) because we find that once you are out at sea and you are working on a shipwreck, you are stuck in one spot because you are having to stay and excavate a site," says Ballard.

"What we are doing is using AUVs to go down the trade route as the 'hunt dog' and then come back and tell us whether they have found something better than what we are spending our time on. We see AUVs as very important force multipliers."

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