Ross Peterson, lower right, a project manager with the Boeing Co., communicates with a crane operator while his team is lowering a battery into the Echo Ranger on Johnson Pier on Monday. The submarine is known as an autonomous unmanned vehicle.
No sign of John, Paul, George or Ringo — but a yellow submarine did draw quite a crowd on its visit to Pillar Point Harbor on Monday, just days before it was due to sail the sea.
A group of onlookers watched along the Johnson Pier as engineers carefully prepped the cargo-container-sized sub for its voyage. The mini-sub, called an Echo Ranger, isn’t meant to ferry humans. The Boeing-built vessel was actually a robotic vehicle designed to take coordinates and be the eyes and ears for a team of government researchers working onshore.
The plan is for the Echo Ranger to be loaded up on the Fulmar, a 67-foot research vessel run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the coming days the boat and its crew plan to head out toward the Farallon Islands to use the robot sub to capture the best images to date of area shipwrecks.
The mission is directed by the NOAA Maritime Heritage Program, a small team of archeologists and historians engaged in a two-year exploration of the local coastline. Last fall, the team conducted a five-day expedition to take a closer look at a graveyard of ships and steamers near the Farallones.
This new excursion is focusing primarily on one vessel in particular, the USS Independence, a World War II aircraft carrier that was scuttled in 1951 along with an unknown payload of nuclear waste. As the largest and deepest vessel lying on the sea floor, the Independence was seen as a good first run to test out the technology, said James Delgado, NOAA Maritime Heritage director.
“We want to do a highly focused survey and that means a lot of methodical flying over the target,” he said. “This mission is all about testing technology for heritage resources.”
This is the first time NOAA researchers have worked with the Echo Ranger, which is provided free of charge by Boeing for the mission. They have other gizmos to try out too. The sub has been outfitted with a Coda Octopus Echoscope, a sonar scanner that can deliver high-quality 3-D images of the exterior of the ship.
“It’s not unlike a sonogram to see what a baby looks like. We’re using the same technology in the deep ocean to see what lies there,” Delgado said. “There’s already some fishermen around the harbor asking if we can also find their pots.”
The exploration is primarily archeological, Delgado said. The research team won’t be plumbing the interior of the Independence or trying to learn more about the nuclear waste that may be hidden with the vessel.
Collecting images of the ship will be a slow process, which the team has come to call “mowing the lawn.” To get a good image, the robot sub will remain about 100 feet away from the ship and slowly survey it back and forth. The process will be extremely redundant to avoid gaps in the images, Delgado said. The exploration of the Independence is expected to continue over the next two weeks.
Unlike previous shipwreck surveys, the Echo Ranger won’t have a tether linking it to the main research vessel. Instead, the NOAA team is trusting that the sub can safely pilot itself back to the larger research ship.
If this mission is successful, NOAA researchers have a plethora of other sites to investigate. More than 300 shipwrecks are estimated to be off the Pacific shores west of San Francisco.
Research and shipwreck explorations are hardly the only purposes the Boeing team had in mind when they designed the Echo Ranger. Much like the growing military importance of aerial drones, unmanned submarines were developed as a cheaper alternative to patrolling the local coastlines with ships and sailors.