With its untold depths, couldn't the sea keep alive such huge specimens of life from another age, this sea that never changes while the land masses undergo almost continuous alteration? Couldn't the heart of the ocean hide the last–remaining varieties of these titanic species, for whom years are centuries and centuries millennia?
So wonders the fictional marine biologist Pierre Aronnax in the classic Jules Verne adventure novel Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. There are probably two great unknowns that have always fascinated humankind: space, and the sea. No shortage of our most modern-day explorers want us to believe that sea is the frontier. Dr. Samuel Smith, PhD, a former researcher and professor at Florida Atlantic University, might say so, too.
In his time at FAU, Smith worked on a project that gets to the heart of marine biology research -- not to mention naval defense strategy. The two are inevitably intertwined; the curiosity that propels us to the depths of the ocean is the same that can be harnessed for underwater protection of the highest order. The endeavor: building an autonomous underwater vehicle, like a Mars probe for shallow (relatively speaking) ocean water.
From within a university setting, Smith’s Advanced Marine Systems lab had a number of goals to juggle: build a vehicle that would let undergraduates and other students learn, as a kind of live testing-laboratory and also contribute a new kind of vehicle that could advance future research. He amassed a lot of bragging rights during his time working on the project, publishing a number of papers on the advancements, even being featured on the U.S. Navy’s AFLOAT Lab during Fleet Week 2003.
“The basic idea is that you want a vehicle that isn’t on a tether,” says Smith of the project now. The thing about AUVs, he explains, is that they become obsolete very quickly, so research to advance them is always ongoing, and those researchers are always digging into the industrial engineering world to feed their epic appetite. Smith found LonTalk technology perfect for his untethered, remote-controlled vehicle -- a technology that allowed distance control and autonomous operation at the same time.
"Ultimately, being able to send technology like this into the ocean can help determine the face of, well, what we know. It’s about going to new places, and quite simply seeing, knowing, more."
“We were able to put individual sensors on each vehicle, and we found that if one of these AUVs could swim a certain distance off the bottom and do surveys in shallow water, that’d be better than towing something bulky behind a boat or having a diver go down to do it,” Smith explained.
And as Smith’s lab created more and more AUVs, each one became more modular than the last.
One incarnation, called “Morpheus” (after the changeable Greek god), built out of plastic and very small (ranging from 4 to 10 feet), was built for coastal sampling, mapping, and surveying for oceanographers or the military. The vehicle, comprised of plastic pressure vessels and a cabling system allowing for the modules to be re-arranged without rewiring bulkheads, represented a new level of modularity for AUVs. It used a LonTalk distributed control network, connecting each sensor-linked component as a collection of “smart nodes” from which to gather live data points about the functioning of the vehicle as it swam the coastal waters.
LonTalk followed Smith's vehicles as they advanced into new areas of unmanned technology. Ultimately, being able to send technology like this into the ocean can help determine the face of, well, what we know. It's about going new places, and quite simply seeing, knowing, more. Ten years after Smith's research, unmanned underwater vehicles are still a bit of a frontier, but industry experts (like Boeing) say they're about to be big gamechangers.
Of course, we start talking about tech advances a little bit quicker once they hit the defense industry, but those technologies begin in places like Smith’s lab - places where researchers with vision and curiosity begin to build, from scratch, something that can think and talk and see more than we could have imagined.