The wreck of the Titanic lay undisturbed for 73 years, at depths of up to 12,000 feet under water. It was discovered in 1985, by a team of American and French researchers using a newly-developed ultra-sensitive sonar system, combined with advanced acoustic technology.
The sinking of the Titanic has a macabre fascination for scientists and the public alike and researchers have been exploring the wreck since 1985.
In 1986 a small underwater robot named Jason Junior or “JJ” produced the first images of the ship on the ocean floor. JJ was tethered to a manned submersible, nicknamed Alvin, hovering just metres away. But now with advanced communications and guidance systems, a new generation of vehicles is able to dive deeper, and remain submerged for longer.
Much of this new technology was developed at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Massachusetts. The latest is Nereus, which can operate as an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) or a robot.
Nereus can collect samples or conduct experiments using its robotic manipulator arm. It works on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, similar to those used in cell phones and laptop computers. Battery life is around 20 hours and it takes six hours to recharge.
Using computer programme systems designed for flying drones and modifying other computer programmes, Bowen’s team helped introduce robotic guidance controls to undersea exploration. The connection for commands and information flow is a light, flexible fibre optic cable.
Scientists can control the Nereus from hundreds of kilometres away as it carries out forensic activities, along with mapping the sea floor and prospecting for oil and minerals.
Robert Ballard, a former United States naval officer, is credited with discovering the wrecks of the Titanic and the battleship Bismarck.
He said things have changed dramatically since he started: “I don’t even have to be on a ship now. I now have a telecommunications centre at the Graduate School of Oceanography at Rhode Island. And, I have a command centre, and I walk into that command centre and I think I’m on the ship.”
These new technologies are less expensive, and more efficient than the old ones. One hundred years after the unsinkable Titanic struck an iceberg, the wreck is still revealing her secrets.