MBARI’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Ventana marked a major milestone in ocean exploration, completing its 4,500th dive for deep-sea science.
In operation since 1988, this robotic submersible has reportedly logged the most science dives of any remotely operated vehicle in the world.
Ventana is an ROV launched from MBARI’s research vessel Rachel Carson. From a control room in the heart of the ship, a team of pilots and scientists steer the submersible as it explores the waters 1,800 meters (a little more than one mile) below.
Ventana has been critical to MBARI’s mission to advance marine science and engineering to understand the changing ocean.
Ventana completed this milestone dive on October 10, during a three-day expedition to Sponge Ridge, a rocky crest in Monterey Canyon. Researchers deployed the ROV Ventana for a series of mapping surveys with MBARI’s Low-Altitude Survey System (LASS).
Engineers from the Seafloor Mapping Lab and the Control, Modeling, and Perception of Autonomous Systems (CoMPAS) Laboratory were at sea to test new software for the LASS.
Ventana was constructed for MBARI in 1987 by International Submarine Engineering Ltd. (ISE) in Canada. At the time, most remotely operated vehicles were used by the oil industry. After three months of construction and a month of sea trials, the core vehicle and tool-sled frame were shipped to Monterey, then the MBARI team got to work customizing Ventana for science operations.
The vehicle began its first test dives in September 1988, and was fully operational by the end of the year.
Ventana has coevolved with the ever-expanding research needs of MBARI researchers. The robot is a versatile platform for deep-sea science and engineering. A dexterous manipulator arm allows researchers to deploy a variety of underwater technologies, and when needed, marine operations crew can mount a second manipulator arm on the vehicle for more complex experiments.
A suite of advanced instruments can be installed on the vehicle to support the diverse needs of MBARI researchers, from collecting samples of deep-sea sediments to visualizing the structure of delicate drifters.
Ventana logs an average of 150 dives every year. Its 4,500 dives represent a total of 17,659 hours in the water. No other ROV has such a storied history for science. In fact, the company believes Ventana’s 4,500 dives exceed the dive total of all other work-class scientific ROVs combined.
With Monterey Bay as a testbed, MBARI works to create and globally scale the research and technology required to explore, map, and monitor the ocean. The company’s proximity to Monterey Canyon allowed it to adopt a unique operational mode for Ventana — day trips.
A mere 25% of the seafloor has been mapped at resolutions high enough to provide details about how organisms use this unique habitat.
New tools and techniques are needed to reveal seafloor geology and biology over large areas, particularly in rugged terrain and areas of societal and ecological significance. Ventana served as a testing platform for one such tool — MBARI’s custom-designed LASS.
The LASS sensor suite combines multibeam (sonar) bathymetry, lidar (laser) bathymetry, and stereo photography to visualize the seafloor in remarkable clarity, detailing geological and biological features of the ocean floor at centimeter-scale. This system was prototyped on the ROV Ventana and is now in operation on the ROV Doc Ricketts.
The LASS executes a path programmed in advance, then MBARI engineers process the data to assemble a map. Caress has been working with Principal Engineer Giancarlo Troni and the CoMPAS Lab on software that will allow the sensor suite to build a map in real time.
This is a critical next step in efforts to integrate the mapping instrumentation on autonomous underwater vehicles.
The submersible’s cameras collect observations of life in Monterey Canyon. A fiber-optic tether carries live deep-sea video to the control room on the R/V Rachel Carson. In 1999, Ventana was the first ROV to carry a high-definition camera.
Earlier this year, MBARI engineers installed a new camera to record in ultra high-definition 4K, allowing scientists to film deep-sea animals and habitats in remarkable clarity.
Ventana fundamentally changed understanding of the midwater—the vast expanse of water between the surface and the seafloor. Thousands of dives with the ROV Ventana revealed this realm was far more densely populated, complex, active, and ecologically structured than scientists had imagined.
“My first dive with Ventana was 24 years ago, in 1999, and all the development projects I’ve participated in since have involved Ventana at some stage, even if the ultimate result yielded equipment somewhere far away on a different ROV or an autonomous vehicle,” recalled Principal Engineer Dave Caress, who leads MBARI’s Seafloor Mapping Lab and was the chief scientist for ROV Ventana’s record-setting dive. “It was only when I sat down in the control room and started to take notes that I realized our first dive would have the nice round number of 4,500. So it was a normal day at sea, and yet very special, and a privilege at the same time.”
Find the rest of the article and much more information on MBARI’s website.