Robert Ballard

  • The future of deep-sea exploration

    By Andrew David Thaler - Southern Fried Science

    Newsweek, in is new and impressive digital format, released a series of articles this week on deep-sea exploration, the challenges of human occupied and remotely-operated vehicles, and the decline in funding for ocean science, particularly in the deep sea.

    The main article, The Last Dive ? Funding for Human Expeditions in the Ocean May Have Run Aground, is a deep, detailed look at the state of deep-sea science, seen through the eyes of Dr. Sylvia Earle and Dr. Robert Ballard, two giants in the ocean community.

    The follow-up, James Cameron Responds to Robert Ballard on Deep-Sea Exploration, provides insight into the mind of James Cameron, who last year successfully dove the Challenger Deep in his own deep-sea submersible. Both the articles continue to perpetrate the canard that there is a deep chasm between the human-occupied submersible (HOV) and remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) communities.

    The reality is that deep-sea scientists use a variety of tools, from mechanical samplers to autonomous robots, to study and understand the deep.

    The choice comes down to which tool is most efficient, least expensive, and currently available. Absent a sea change, ROV’s will continue to be the workhorses of deep-sea research. And that is a good thing.

    I sang the praise of my robot underlings the last time this debate breached the public consciousness.

    I also discussed why basic deep-sea research and training highly skilled ROV pilots is a matter of national security. Ballard and Earle have been on opposite sides of this divide for a long time, with Earle pushing for a greater human presence in the ocean and Ballard supporting the continued expansion of telepresence technologies that allow scientist and the public to interact with deep-sea assets from the comfort of facilities like the Inner Space Center in Rhode Island.

    Cameron, whose most successful movie to date is a essentially a meditation on how awesome it is to pilot a really sophisticated ROV, takes the stance that young minds cannot be inspired by remotely-operated exploration, that someone must be there to “experience it first hand and return to tell the story”, claiming “the quickest way to get even less interest and engagement is to take human explorers out of the vehicles.”

    I categorically reject the implication that people cannot be inspired unless another person is physically there. The Mars Curiosity Rover is proof enough that our robotic brethren are nothing less than extensions of our own senses.

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