Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

David Wettergreen, Ph.D.
Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University

Exploration of Sistema Zacaton, Mexico,
with an autonomous underwater vehicle

Wednesday – June 13, 2007
Pacific Forum – 3:00 p.m.

Sistema Zacatón in the Tamaulipas mountains of central Mexico (22.99°, -98.16°) provides a unique environment for scientific investigation and technology development. These freshwater sinkholes, cenotes, are warm, sulfurous, and anoxic. They had never been explored to their depths and the bottom of the deepest, el Zacatón, was not known, until last month. The goals of the Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer (DEPTHX) project are both scientific and technologic: to explore the cenotes and collect biomat samples and to develop a vehicle and the methods to autonomously navigate in an underwater cave.
In this talk I will describe Sistema Zacatón and define the specific technologic challenges that must be faced to operate in this type of environment. There are some important analogies to Antarctic and planetary exploration. I will describe the DEPTHX AUV and the navigation and mapping methods that we developed. I will then review our recent fieldwork, describing the experiments and the initial results of the investigation. The DEPTHX project was led by Stone Aerospace which designed and integrated the vehicle. Southwest Research Institute built the science payload for science investigators from the University of Texas at Austin, Colorado School of Mines, and NASA Ames Research Center. Carnegie Mellon developed the navigation and guidance software to map the cenotes and autonomously execute the exploration strategy.


Next: June 27 - Steve O'Shea