Deep sea robot delivers on first mission, replaces "Starship Enterprise"

It's a robot Olympic swimming mega-star Michael Phelps would be proud of. A unique autonomous submarine robot has surveyed and helped pinpoint several proposed deep-water sites for seafloor sensors that will be deployed in an extensive National Science Foundation (NSF) undersea research network.

The 1,212 lb Sentry is a state-of-the-art, free-swimming underwater robot that can operate without any links to a research ship at ocean depths of over 3 miles.

Sentry, which was built and operated Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), gets it power from more than 1,000 lithium-ion batteries and carries a variety of sensors that measure everything from ocean temperature and pressure.   In its first undersea test, Sentry carried a photo-mapping/seafloor imaging system that it used to build the most precise maps to date of about 33 square miles of seafloor off the coast of Oregon and Washington, researchers said.  Sentry collected as many as 60 million individual soundings of seafloor depth in a single dive, researchers added.

Sentry is pre-programmed with guidance for deep-water surveying, but it can also make its own decisions about navigation on the terrain of the seafloor, researchers said. The sub  steers itself with a magnetic compass; long-baseline navigation triangulated from underwater beacons; a sophisticated inertial guidance system and, an acoustic sensor that can precisely track the vehicles' direction and speed, researchers said.

Woods Hole researchers said Sentry is designed to swim like a fish or hover  like a helicopter in  the water. Its hydrodynamic design lets Sentry  descend underwater quickly while its shape  gives the vehicle tremendous stability and balance while cruising through bottom currents.  The vehicle has thrusters built into its foils, or wing that let Sentry gain lift or drag or directional momentum, as needed.

When necessary, Sentry can hover over the bottom for close-up inspections, navigational decision-making, and rise up and down over rugged seafloor terrain. The design lets the vehicle start, stop, and change directions, whereas many unmanned subs tend to travel in one direction, researchers said.

Sentry is now ready to join the National Deep Submergence Facility (NDSF), a federally funded center based at WHOI that operates, maintains, and coordinates the use of vital deep ocean vehicles for the U.S. oceanographic community, researchers said. 

Eventually, vehicles like Sentry and its successors will plug into and interact with the ocean observatory system, using the power charging systems and high speed communications delivered by the submarine networks, researchers said.

One of those networks will include the NSF's Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). According to the NSF,  OOI has three elements: 1) a regional cabled network consisting of interconnected sites on the seafloor spanning several geological and oceanographic features and processes, 2) relocatable deep-sea buoys that could also be deployed in harsh environments such as the Southern Ocean, and 3) new construction or enhancements to existing facilities leading to an expanded network of coastal observatories.

Sentry will replace the Autonomous Benthic Explorer (ABE) deep-diving vehicle that many thought looked like Star Trek's Enterprise command spacecraft. The resemblance to Captain Kirk's space ship is coincidental, but ABE's design team did stencil "NCC1701"-registry number of the fictional Enterprise-on the hull for fun, according to the Woods Hole Website.

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