Unmanned Submarines Bring Scientists One Step Closer to Understanding the Deep Seas

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It’s hard to believe that there could be life in the deep recesses of Earth’s ocean, but over 13,000 feet below the surface, small shrimp, crabs, and other creatures flourish near hydrothermal vents. An unmanned submarine named SuBastion recently ventured down into the deep to join them.

Scientists located a previously undiscovered group of hydrothermal vents in a region titled the Mariana Back-Arc — located near the Mariana Trench — in 2015. They returned to the marked location with SuBastion, a remotely-operated submersible developed by the Schmidt Ocean Institute. SuBastion was launched from their ship, Falkor, which gathered information and broadcasted Subastion’s video via livestream.

Video footage revealed chimneys up to 100 feet tall in the Back-Arc region, as well as vast numbers of sea creatures around them. The chimneys teemed with life, which included shrimp, lobsters, and crabs. National Geographic explained that the hard rock around the chimneys provides a better setting for these sea creatures to live on, when compared to the soft mud on the sea floor.

But SuBastion isn’t the only submersible setting out to explore the depths. Students at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay have been working hard to develop Matsya, an autonomous submersible that is capable of controlling its own movements and tasks without the need for human guidance.

Right now, the only unmanned submersibles operated by India’s naval forces are remotely operated. Matsya’s technology could actually “train” the equipment currently being used to act independently. Unlike military forces in the U.S. and in China, which have been using unmanned submersibles for some time, India’s entry into the world of unmanned equipment is fairly new.

The IIT project’s 21-year-old team leader, Varun Mittal, said that while space exploration has forced the need for unmanned machines, “development of underwater unmanned vehicles started [in India] only recently.” Matsya will be able to serve both the military and scientific community. Its automated nature will eliminate human error during special intelligence missions, as well as allow ecologists to better understand and explore the depths.

With the help of submersibles like SuBastion and Matsya, it’s likely that we’ll have a much clearer picture of what life looks like in the deepest, unexplored areas of the ocean in the foreseeable future. They may even be able to see what happens to the 15-40% of dumped plastic that makes its way into the ocean annually.

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