A Lafayette tech firm makes underwater drones that can plunge almost 3 miles undersea to explore sunken WWII U-boats, search pirate ships or hunt lost aircraft. C & C Technologies makes these Autonomous Underwater Vehicles which cost $8.5 million each. Their AUVs may soon be helping fiind the lost Malaysian airliner. C & C used AUVs to examine WWII German U-boats sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.
(Photo: Leslie Westbrook, The Advertiser)
Each one costs about $8.5 million and looks like a huge bright orange torpedo.
Autonomous Unmanned Vehicles are as good at capturing information as drones, but AUVs can plunge almost three miles into the sea where they map the terrain and photograph objects in inky darkness near the ocean floor.
C & C Technologies in Lafayette owns four of these AUVs, which are often used to examine underwater terrain where oil companies want to put a pipeline. But AUVs can do much more, like search for mysteriously vanished airplanes, including Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.
“One of the companies we often work with, Phoenix International, is currently helping with the search for the Malaysian airliner,” C & C vice president David Connell told The Daily Advertiser. “Our colleagues at Phoenix asked us if we could be ready to help once the search area has been narrowed down to a more manageable area.”
It is not the first time AUVs have been used to find a lost plane. Two years ago, AUVs were used to search for aviator Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra, which disappeared over the Pacific Ocean ending her failed effort to circumnavigate the globe. But AUV technology has evolved rapidly since then. AUVs can now help the Navy recover fighter jets that miss aircraft carrier decks and smash into the ocean. AUV software expert Jerry Knisley, guest of honor at the Hydrographic Society of America-Louisiana crawfish boil fundraiser in Henderson this week, recalled recovering of an F-15’s debris.
“Luckily, the pilot was able to eject before the crash because after an F-15 hits the water at that speed, it looks like a shredded Coke can,” Knisley said, “The AUV sensors are now able to generate images of objects as small as three inches, like say a door handle jutting from debris.”
This can be lifesaving data for divers trying to salvage or explore an area in total darkness. If the AUV can tell them that there is a round 3-inch object that is a specific distance from a doorway, the divers can orient themselves without being able to see clearly.
Sometimes routine exploratory tasks yield astonishing discoveries that change the history books. C & C has three staff archaeologists, including senior marine archaeologist Robert Church who is also a diver. (He explored Blackbeard’s pirate ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, which sank off the North Carolina coast). He recalled how an AUV discovered a sunken World War II German U-boat in the Gulf of Mexico while conducting a pipeline survey for BP and Shell about four years ago. “It had been torpedoed by the Americans and all the U-boat sailors died when it went down, so it was essentially a war grave, which many Americans would consider hallowed ground,” Church said.
When a pipeline survey encounters a site with spiritual or historic significance — or sunken treasure — the client is notified because there is a battery of laws governing who owns such artifacts and how they can be moved. C & C archaeologists began research to pinpoint which of the 24 U-boats operating in the Gulf during WWII this one was.
“We figured out it was the U-boat that sank the Robert E. Lee, a passenger freighter that had a Naval escort as it came out of the Mississippi River into the Gulf,” Church said. “I interviewed a sailor who was standing on the deck when he actually saw the torpedo heading toward the freighter.”
The U.S. Navy had ruled that the PC5-66 escorting the Robert E. Lee missed the U-boat when it fired retaliatory torpedoes. But Church pieced together a timeline that showed the escort did indeed fire the torpedoes that sank the U-boat. The historic discovery generated immense public interest. BP and Shell decided to put their pipeline safely more than a mile away from the U-boat.
Louisiana’s hydrographers invited Knisley to tell them about his WWII project recovering the secrets of the D-Day invasion. The project will be showcased in a May 28 NOVA special on PBS entitled “D-DAY’S Sunken Secrets.”
The images of sunken battleships, tanks and personnel carriers that the AUVs captured were so clear, details like handrails on ships are visible. The AUVs recovered details that helped historians piece together how ingenious the teenage and youthful Allied soldiers who landed on the beaches were. Like true engineers, they improvised solutions to seemingly impossible problems, like improvising a minesweeper out of a wheel that swept chains across the sand.