The flat, muddy deep ocean floor—known as the abyssal plain—is one of the largest and least known habitats on this planet. It covers more than 50 percent of Earth’s surface and plays a critical role in the carbon cycle. For 30 years, MBARI Senior Scientist Ken Smith and his colleagues have studied deep-sea communities at a research site called Station M, located 4,000 meters (2.5 miles) below the ocean’s surface and 291 kilometers (181 miles) off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

Doing deep-sea research is incredibly challenging, time-consuming, and sometimes dangerous. For this reason, MBARI strives to build and deploy robots that help scientists better understand the changes taking place in our ocean. At Station M, Smith and his colleagues rely upon satellites, human-occupied vehicles, such as Alvin, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), a seafloor rover, seafloor landers, coring devices, fish traps, sediment traps, respirometers (which measure oxygen consumption), current meters, and time-lapse cameras to study abyssal ecosystems.

Over the past 30 years, Smith and his team have constructed a truly unique underwater observatory that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a full year without servicing. Building a robotic observatory is challenging under normal circumstances; imagine doing it 4,000 meters underwater!

The results of their research have dramatically changed marine biologists’ perceptions of life in the deep sea and our understanding of climate change. Data collected at Station M show that the deep sea is far from static—physical conditions and biological communities can change dramatically over timescales ranging from days to decades.

Ultimately, this work highlights that persistent, long-term, time-series observations are critical for furthering our understanding of carbon cycling between the surface waters and the deep sea. With more companies looking to extract resources from the abyssal plain, these data also give scientists valuable insights into “baseline conditions” in deep-sea areas now under consideration for industrial development or deep-sea mining.

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Additional Information

Dorado-class AUV, flooded fairing design with electronics, payload and batteries in sealed glass-spheres or separate metal pressure housings.

  • Length: 19.5 ft
  • Mass: 1350 lbs (Mass at recovery with entrained water: xxxx lbs)
  • Weight in water: -4 lbs (4 lbs buoyant)
  • Propulsion and control: single propeller with duct on 2-axis gimbal, allowing for rudder and elevator function, oil compensated
  • Batteries: 14.5 kWh LiIon batteries in 3 glass spheres
  • Navigation: RDI Workhorse 1200kHz in water track mode and VectorNav VN100 MEMS compass
  • Acoustic Comms: Sonardyne AvTrak 6 tracking beacon with SMS feature
  • Camera: 2k Video camera systems in underwater housing with aspherical dome
  • Lights: 4x DSP&L lights with up to 9000 lm each
  • Bioacoustics: Downward and forward looking acoustic transducers (200 and 333 kHz)
  • Water Sensors: Seabird Conductivity, Temperature and Oxygen sensor as well as transmissometer

MBARI has been running video transects in the midwater out in Monterey Bay for the last 25 years. These efforts have historically involved ROVs that have been manually driven to a particular depth and through the transects. This required a whole day of operations on a large ship with a work-class ROV to get just a few transects lines covered. In 2014 the i2map project was started to move task of the recording of these video transects to an AUV. At that point, MBARI had been deploying deep-water AUVs for at least 15 years so a new nose payload with a high resolution camera and a solid-state recorder was built to be tested on an existing AUV.

The advantage of using an AUV for running video transects is not just limited to the reduced work effort. Since after deployment the vehicle operates without supervision for around 24 hours, it can run many more transects that would be possible in a typical day of ROV operations, including transects all the way through the night.

The i2map transects start at 25m and stretch all the way to 1000m. The maximum depth the vehicle can operate in is 1500m.

In 2018 the i2map vehicle got updated with an additional sensor suite as part of MBARIs interest in bioacoustic research, which uses sonars to detect and even identify biology in the water column using their acoustic signature. Now the i2map vehicle has a set of forward and downward looking sonars that work around 200 kHz and 333 kHz.

Combining these instruments with the camera-equipped vehicle allowed to see the influence the vehicle and especially the lights have on the animals around the vehicle. The acoustic system has a much larger range than what can be seen in the camera pictures which allows the study of avoidance and attraction behavior of the creatures. Furthermore, the vehicle is repeating transects without the lights and camera on at all, which can tell the researchers something about if the animals react to the vehicle based on noise or if it is just the super-bright lights.