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Remotely operated vehicle reaches its
record depth in Monterey Canyon

December 22, 1997

Quiet and stealthy like its namesake, the shark, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s new remotely operated vehicle, Tiburon, set a record for MBARI on Tiblaunch-240.jpg (19299 bytes)December 11, diving to 4,000 meters, or almost two-and-one-half miles. Aboard the mother ship, the R/V Western Flyer, technicians and crew watched depth readings on a video monitor. When the underwater robot reached its dive limit in the inky depths of Monterey Canyon, about 130 miles from shore, a triumphant cheer broke out in the control room.

"It is tremendously gratifying to have Tiburon show it can reach 4,000 meters and do the tasks it was designed to do—it’s our measure of success," said Mark Chaffey, a key member of the Tiburon engineering team. "Our job was basically to design a high-speed, networked computer system that operates at the end of a 5,000-meter long cable. The ROV is surrounded by electrically conductive seawater where pressures at its depth limit are 5,800 pounds per square inch. It's an extremely harsh environment."

The feat is the culmination of years of painstaking effort that have gone into the planning and construction of Tiburon at MBARI. The depth capability of 4,000 meters was carefully chosen: It is the average depth at which the floor of the Pacific Ocean meets the continental rise of western North America. With its all-electric design, Tiburon is one of the most sophisticated underwater vehicles currently being used for ocean research. Its precision thrusters and other specially engineered systems allow for high performance control while keeping noise and water disturbance at a minimum—an important advantage for biologists eager to learn more about life in the deep ocean. Tiburon also has a variable buoyancy system that allows its operators to precisely manipulate the vehicle. The compact-car-sized science platform can hover inches above the seafloor to pluck a rock sample with its robotic arm, or maneuver swiftly to track animals through the water.

ROV "pilots" control Tiburon electronically via a 5,000-meter (16,250-foot) tether, its power and telecommunications lifeline to the mother ship. Likewise, video signals from the ROV’s sophisticated cameras are relayed via the cable back to the control room, where scientists manipulate the cameras and lights to capture deep-sea images. The umbilical cord weighs 3,530 kilograms (7,782 pounds) when fully paid out in water, and the enormous tension it exerts stretches it about 14 meters (46 feet) in length.

Tiburon’s forté is its scientific range and flexibility. The core vehicle is equipped with a suite of built-in sensors, imaging sonar, a manipulator arm, an acoustic navigation system, and more than a dozen advanced, independently operating computers. MBARI engineers are developing modular "toolsleds"—customized instrument packages for tasks such as seafloor mapping, animal collection, and ocean-bottom experiments—that will attach and detach easily to and from the core frame.

One of Tiburon’s current tasks is collecting animals for a unique exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium that will help make the deep sea—Earth’s largest habitat—more accessible to the general public than ever before. The aquarium’s deep-sea exhibit, scheduled to open in March 1999, will span 650 square meters (7,000 square feet). It will include a variety of displays with more than 40 species of live animals from deep ocean waters, most of which have never been on exhibit before. In conjunction with the special exhibit, the aquarium is also adding special effects to "Live from Monterey Bay," the program that allows visitors to, in effect, peer over MBARI scientists’ shoulders while live video is transmitted from the ROV to the aquarium.

With its ability to investigate Monterey Canyon’s deepest depths and record the details on videotape, Tiburon promises to open a new realm to MBARI scientists, who have been conducting ROV-assisted research in the submarine canyon for a decade. As Chaffey put it, "It’s very exciting to have a huge new area of the ocean now accessible. I imagine that it may become routine for us, but for now each dive to these depths has the thrill of discovery."

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute is a private oceanographic center. It was established in 1987 by David Packard with the goal of developing advanced equipment, instrumentation, and methods of scientific research in the deep waters of the ocean. MBARI employs about 170 people.

Contact: Debbie Meyer, Communications Coordinator