MELBOURNE, Fla. (WOFL FOX 35 ORLANDO) - According to the Florida Institute of Technology, their Ocean Engineering program is "the" university program in the country to provide hands-on training with a Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV. "If you want to get a job working with autonomous underwater vehicle, you want to have experience at the undergraduate level,” says Dr. Stephen Wood, the chair of FIT’s Ocean Engineering program.
But that experience, unfortunately, is currently on hold. Last Wednesday, Dr. Wood and his students were testing their AUV where Crane Creek meets the Indian River in Melbourne, when the 12-foot long, bright yellow, torpedo shaped vehicle, apparently disobeyed it's program.
The university team programmed a simple 200-yard ‘L’ pattern into their Bluefin 21. It was supposed to stay above water and stop at the end of the sequence, but instead, it performed a dive and hasn’t been seen since. "Our belief is it's stuck in the mud,” says Professor Wood. “As we all know, in the Indian River Lagoon, there's a lot of mud out there, so we are in the process of using different technologies to actually see if we can find out where in the mud it's stuck."
The university’s Bluefin-21 is nearly identical to the those being used to search for Malaysian Flight 370 over hundreds of square miles on the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Although AUV’s like the Bluefin excel at performing underwater grid searches, Dr. Wood says it's not uncommon for the vehicles to go off course. “Basically, it is not so highly intelligent,” he says. “It can only do a grid waypoint. You go from 'point A' to 'point B,' straight there at whatever depth you tell it to."
Professor Wood says a new Bluefin-21 can cost over a million dollars. The university's is on permanent loan from the Navy, but because it's more than ten years old, it’s worth much less. But it's extremely valuable to the education of FIT's students, who have posted missing AUV fliers around local marinas with its picture on it, while searching the Indian River by boat for four to six hours each day. "So the students are now learning side scan sonar and underwater metal detectors, to be able to retrieve this. So that too, is totally educational,” Wood says.
Professor Wood says the AUV doesn’t have any value to the general public. Software and constant support is needed to keep it running. And he says it’s totally harmless if found by the public. In fact, he’s hoping someone discovers it, and contacts him.
The large yellow vessel may excel at helping find things underwater, but now FIT's students are the ones learning how to rescue their own search vessel.
If you find FIT’s missing Bluefin-21, please contact professor Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the Florida Institute of Technology.