Partnership lets schoolchildren use robotic subs to study Yorktown shipwrecks

This is a digital sonar image of a newly discovered vessel on the floor of the York River immediately adjacent to histroric Yorktown, Virginia -- site of the 1781 Battle of Yorktown.

By David Malmquist

A new partnership between the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and the Watermen's Museum in historic Yorktown Virginia will give local students a unique opportunity to dive into Colonial history -- literally.

The project, funded by a 1-year grant from the National Science Foundation, will allow the students to pilot unmanned robotic submarines in an attempt to monitor the conservation status of shipwrecked vessels scuttled by Lord Cornwallis during the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 -- the last major battle of the American Revolution.

Leading the project are Dr. Mark Patterson, head of the Autonomous Systems Laboratory at VIMS, and Dr. David Niebuhr, Director of the Watermen's Museum. The students are from Point Option High School in Newport News, the Williamsburg Montessori Middle School, and Peasley Middle School in Gloucester. VIMS graduate student Jennifer Elliott, who is teaching at Peasley as part of the VIMS GK-12 partnership, will also be involved.

The project capitalizes on the recent discovery in the York River of two new shipwrecks from the siege of Yorktown. Previous archeological work had revealed the presence of nine other wrecks, including the HMS Betsy, the target of intensive study during the 1970s and 1980s. These wrecks are listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

The two new wrecks were discovered by pioneering marine archeologist Dr. John Broadwater -- leader of the Betsy study -- during a survey done for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Patterson also independently discovered one of the sunken vessels during a mission with Fetch I, an "autonomous underwater vehicle" or "AUV" developed in his lab. Both explorers made their discoveries using side-scan sonar units manufactured by Marine Sonic Technology of Gloucester. These can be operated from a boat, or deployed on a robot sub like Fetch.

The researchers believe the previously buried wrecks were uncovered by strong currents during recent tropical storms, and are concerned that their exposure on the bayfloor may lead to rapid degradation. By mapping the wrecks' outlines, the students will help conservators monitor their condition and take preventive measures if necessary.

"Enabling students to use advanced robotics at a site of national significance in marine archeology will be a first," says Patterson. "To put these tools into the hands of school kids, to have them monitor shipwrecks that are starting to erode out of the sediment, is a great way to get them interested in science."

"These kids are going to be some of the very first people to explore these wrecks, as part of their science classes," adds Niebuhr. "They are going to be introduced to real problems -- it's not pretend, it's genuine. Very rarely are you able to do that in most school programs."

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