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What is Technology’s Role in Deep-Sea Exploration?

Robert Ballard, the man who discovered the ruins of the Titanic, shares how robots assist in undersea exploration.

Sacramento, Calif. — On April 2, Robert Ballard, oceanography professor at the University of Rhode Island, closed out this year’s Sacramento Speaker Series. Ballard is most famously known for the discovering the remains of the Titanic, but other discoveries include John F. Kennedy’s torpedo boat, battleship Bismarck and many undersea archaeological artifacts dating back to the Roman and Byzantine periods.  

In case you’re curious, Ballard doesn't consider the Titanic his greatest discovery. What is? “My greatest discovery is the one I’m about to make,” he said.

Ballard, who is synonymous with deep-sea exploration, has penned 18 books and written numerous articles for National Geographic. His love for the ocean began as a child when he moved to San Diego from Kansas — home to Dorothy, a different type of explorer. It wasn’t Dorothy who electrified his passion, however; it was Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

“I wanted to be Captain Nemo,” he told his parents when they asked him about his future ambitions. And so it goes, that Ballard, the equivalent of a modern-day Nemo, has explored the depths of the ocean to 12,000 feet — a one-way, two-hour journey to and from land — 120 times. 

The former Navy commander sometimes uses what he calls his Na’vi, or avatar, to take the plunge. His Na’vi is essentially his “spirit guide” into the ocean, giving him the ability to venture to depths where the body isn’t physically designed to go. In tech terms, they are ROVs (remote operated vehicles) and AUVs (automated underwater vehicles).

Although Ballard freefalls in titanium submarines on exotic voyages to see giant worms, oversized clams and undersea chimneys, he also said he lives in the cloud. A lot of the collaboration associated with deep-sea exploration happens in command centers, where ROVs and AUVs are monitored on screens like an incident manager would during a crisis. Other technologies like fiber optics, satellite and ultra high-speed bandwidth assist with streaming videos to team members who might be in various locations.

One thing Ballard emphasized during his lecture was the need for undersea maps. He said 50 percent of America is under the ocean, which hasn’t been explored. “We have better maps of Mars than our country,” he said. Ballard is hoping that sonar technology will help with mapping the world’s oceans — an expedition he’ll undertake.

In the meantime, he’s preparing the nation’s children to pursue his passion for the ocean, and has founded an organization called Ocean Exploration Trust to do just this. And in 1989, he founded the Jason Project, a distance-learning program whose aim is to get middle-school students engaged in science, technology, education and math. 

Photo of  Robert Ballard courtesy of AP/Peter Morrison