Home | Contact ST  
Follow ST

Review&Forecast—January 2010 Issue

Selected Engineering Highlights at MBARI

By Kim Fulton-Bennett
Communications Associate

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) was founded by David Packard in 1987 with the goal of advancing ocean research through the development of innovative technology and the close collaboration of scientists, engineers and marine operations staff.

Scientific research at MBARI includes a variety of interdisciplinary and long-term studies in marine geology, marine biology, chemical oceanography and physical oceanography. MBARI's research scope extends from the deep seafloor to the ocean surface. Recent engineering work has focused on several areas, including ocean observatories and monitoring networks, instruments for environmental monitoring and chemical analysis, underwater robotics and autonomy, and systems software and data processing systems. This article describes just a few of these engineering projects.

MARS Observatory
In early 2009, MBARI commissioned the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS). Initially funded in 2003 by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the MARS observatory was envisioned as an engineering test bed to help researchers understand the challenges of constructing and operating a regional cabled observatory. The MARS cable extends 52 kilometers from shore to a central hub on the seafloor, 900 meters below the surface of Monterey Bay. The cable provides eight kilowatts of electrical power and a 100-megabit-per-second Ethernet connection. Experiments are connected to the observatory hub through eight wet-mateable connectors and are typically installed using MBARI's remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

During 2009, MARS was quickly populated with a variety of advanced undersea research projects, including three MBARI experiments, two collaborative experiments and one third-party experiment.

One of the first experiments hooked up to the MARS observatory was the Free Ocean Carbon Enrichment (FOCE) experiment. The FOCE experiment consists of a 10-meter-long rectangular flume containing a series of baffles. Carbon dioxide (CO2)-enriched seawater is introduced at one end of the flume, then mixes and reacts with ambient seawater as it flows slowly around the baffles. In the middle of the flume is a test area where a one-meter square of seafloor is exposed to consistently elevated concentrations of CO2. This experiment will help researchers study the effects of ocean acidification on marine organisms. By hooking up to the observatory in 2009, researchers were able to conduct extended engineering tests of the system and several successful CO2 enrichment trials.

In February 2009, another experiment, the Monterey Broadband (MOBB) seismometer, was connected to MARS. This extremely sensitive earthquake detector had been operating under battery power in Monterey Bay since 2002, but required periodic ROV dives to download data and change batteries. Hooked up to MARS, the seismometer now provides high-quality data in real time. Unlike most experiments on the MARS engineering test bed, the MOBB seismometer will remain in place for at least five years.

Like the MOBB seismometer, MBARI's benthic rover normally operates autonomously, but it was hooked up to the MARS observatory in 2009 for testing. As the benthic rover travels across the deep seafloor, it takes photographs and video and measures the oxygen consumption of microbes and animals on the seafloor. During its two extended deployments, the rover unspooled an 'extension cord' behind it as it moved. The live feedback and control provided by MARS greatly simplified the process of debugging the rover's control software and allowed researchers to respond to unforeseen events.

In addition to the MARS observatory, MBARI engineers have been working on another strategy for providing power and data connectivity to deepsea instruments—the Monterey Ocean Observing System (MOOS). In the MOOS, solar and wind power from a surface buoy are transferred to the seafloor through a specialized mooring cable (which also carries data via optical fibers). In 2009, MBARI engineers deployed the MOOS surface buoy for the second time in Monterey Bay and will install the seafloor instrument system in 2010.

Another unique environmental monitoring tool, the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) functions as a robotic molecular biology lab. Like the MOOS project, the ESP has been in development at MBARI for about a decade. Floating in the open ocean or moored in the deep sea, the ESP can detect microbes and other tiny living organisms using their genetic material. It can also detect other biologically important compounds, such as toxins generated by harmful algal blooms. Last year, the ESP team constructed and field tested a 'deep-ESP' that can be deployed down to 4,000 meters. The team also constructed six new ESP 'cores,' which will be deployed in networked installations along the West Coast of the U.S. The ESP is being commercialized by Spyglass Biosecurity (San Francisco, California).

MBARI's autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) development program continued to diversify during 2009. One team of engineers built and tested a prototype long-range AUV that will travel faster than underwater gliders and have a range of more than 1,000 kilometers on a single battery charge. Another team developed and tested an AUV that can capture photomosaics of the seafloor. MBARI's sonar-based seafloor-mapping AUV was deployed on cruises to Southern California, the Pacific Northwest and Fiji, where it mapped an active underwater volcano. Engineers in the autonomy group at MBARI are developing artificial intelligence algorithms that will allow MBARI's water-monitoring AUVs to find and follow ocean fronts and plumes.

Another MBARI engineering group has developed an instrument communications protocol for a self-identifying system, the Programmable Underwater Connector with Knowledge (PUCK), which is being evaluated by the European Seafloor Observatory Network ocean observatory system for use throughout their network.

Other MBARI researchers have been developing sensors for long-term, high-precision monitoring of nutrients, the partial pressure of CO2 and pH in ocean waters.

The partial pressure of CO2 sensors were recently deployed on several open-ocean profiling floats and are presently being commercialized by Battelle (Columbus, Ohio).

In mid-2008, MBARI took possession of a new ROV from Soil Machine Dynamics (Wallsend, England), which was christened ROV Doc Ricketts. The new ROV replaced MBARI's ROV Tiburon, which was designed and built by MBARI staff in 1996. Doc Ricketts made its first science dive in February, reaching a design depth of 4,000 meters. By the end of the year, the vehicle had spent two months in the Pacific Northwest and performed more than 100 science dives. MBARI's original ROV, the Ventana, had completed more than 3,500 science dives (and 14,000 hours of dive time) by the end of 2009.

Looking ahead, MBARI will continue to develop cutting-edge engineering tools and pioneer their use in addressing important ocean issues. We expect to see increased use of the MARS observatory by third-party researchers, look forward to creative collaborative ventures and plan to see MBARI's technologies come into increasing use, both in the U.S. and overseas.

-back to top-

-back to to Features Index-

Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.