Famed deep-sea explorer Dr. Robert Ballard talks about the network, telepresence and the future of “electronic travel”
In 1981, deep-sea explorer extraordinaire Robert Ballard, Ph.D., was asked by National Geographic Magazine to do what he does best – dream.
The magazine was running a story on the future of ocean exploration and wanted to include artwork showing what technologies scientists might one day use to study the ocean floor. Ballard, then 39, sat down with a team of artists and gave them his take.
Earlier this summer, his vision became a reality, establishing a new frontier in the highly specialized world of deep-sea exploration. Combining telepresence, high-definition cameras, remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) and state-of-the-art networking, it allows experts to plumb the ocean depths and instantly share their findings with others – all without leaving dry land.
“It took me 29 years to get to this point, but I arrived,” says Ballard, whose telepresence system debuts this summer with an expedition of the vessel Nautilus in the Mediterranean.
Titanic, Bismarck Discoveries and More
The achievement is the latest of many in Ballard’s storied career. His explorations have located such historic artifacts as the wrecks of the Titanic, the Bismarck, President John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 and the aircraft carrier Yorktown from the historic Battle of Midway. He’s even credited with such groundbreaking discoveries as the existence of hydrothermal vents – think underwater geysers – off the Galapagos Islands where never-before-seen life forms survive not by photosynthesis but a process known as “chemosynthesis.”
Ballard’s pioneering spirit has often outpaced the technologies of the day. In the 1970s, deep-sea explorers got around in mini-submarines armed with flashlights—”underwater Jeeps,” as Ballard calls them. But the subs were incredibly slow.
The commute alone took five hours a day—two and a half hours to travel the 12,000 feet to the ocean floor, and two and a half hours back. That left only three hours a day for actual exploration—enough to cover just one nautical mile.
“I was exploring a mountain range that was 42,000 miles long,” recalls Ballard, who directs the Center for Ocean Exploration, a research program for students at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. “It was frustrating because I was making discoveries but in slow motion.”
Ingenuity Overcomes Technical Challenges
Ballard relied on submarines for 25 years. But two years after his hydrothermal vents discovery in 1977, he had an epiphany.
On a return trip to the vents, this time with an eager biologist, Ballard began fiddling with the digital camera attached to the sub’s mechanical arm, zooming in and studying a 6-inch monitor displaying the camera’s view. That’s when he realized the biologist, rather than peering out of the sub’s windows, was looking over his shoulder at the same monitor. The view, the biologist said, was better.
“I thought, Wait a minute—we brought you halfway round the world, 9,000 feet down, we stuck you in a vent, and you’re looking at a TV monitor?,” Ballard says. “And a light bulb went off.”
The light bulb was telepresence. Best known for helping companies reduce travel budgets or enabling virtual visits to doctors, in this context it promised to radically ease the cost, logistics and risk of transporting biologists and other experts to the ocean floor where they could evaluate new discoveries.
Live Video from Under the Sea
To bring his vision to fruition, Ballard had to wait for the advent of technologies such as fiber optics and Internet2, a high-speed version of the Web connecting research institutions. Rather than submarines, the system uses cameras mounted on unmanned ROVs capable of staying underwater for days at a time.
Fiber optic cables pump live video to large plasma screens in a command center aboard the Nautilus. From there, via satellite, the video fans instantly across the telepresence network, where it can be seen live on the Web and shared in glorious high definition with experts, school kids and others—no matter how land-lubberly—at command centers around the United States.
“Ultimately, this is electronic travel. We’re moving sprits and leaving our body behind.”
— Dr. Robert Ballard, director, Center for Ocean Exploration, University of Rhode Island
Although the kinks are still being ironed out, Ballard says the system is a massive improvement over the old approach. It runs round the clock and, in the event of a potentially significant discovery, an expert can be on hand within 30 minutes, he says. It also helps explorers like him do their jobs without long periods away from loved ones, and it brings the wonders of deep-sea exploration to a much wider audience.
“We’re not one person staring out the window—we’re a planet staring out the window,” Ballard says, adding that the system uses large amounts of Cisco equipment. “It’s all about the network.”
Ballard’s Vision for the Future
And Ballard isn’t done dreaming yet. The day is coming, he predicts, when people will use telepresence instead of other forms of travel, too. Instead of flying to the Serengeti for a safari, for example, they will rent robots stationed there and drive them around from the comfort of their homes thousands of miles away.
“Ultimately, this is electronic travel,” Ballard says. “We’re moving sprits and leaving our bodies behind.”
But again, for that dream to become reality, technology will have to evolve.
“The biggest challenge is getting high bandwidth to the masses,” he says. “But once that happens, wow, buckle up!”
Laurence Cruz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.