Marsha Skoczek: The Remotely Operated Vehicle, Our Eyes at the Bottom of the Ocean, July 13, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marsha Skoczek
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 6 – 19, 2012

 

Mission: Marine Protected Areas Survey
Geographic area of cruise:  Subtropical North Atlantic, off the east coast of North Carolina
Date:  July 13, 2012

Location:
Latitude:  33.26104N
Longitude:  76.54810W

Weather Data from the Bridge
Air Temperature:  28.1C (82F)
Wind Speed:  4.5 knots (5.2mph)
Wind Direction:  From the SSE
Relative Humidity: 78 %
Barometric Pressure:  1021.1
Surface Water Temperature:  28.1C (82F)

Science and Technology Log

ROV with labels, photo credit UVP

Rather than fishing for multiple samples of each species from every Marine Protected Area (MPA) we stop at, the scientists opted to use a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to gather their data.  This also allows Stacey Harter and Andy David to get real time footage of the animals that inhabit each dive site as well as a more complete picture of the habitat itself.  Not only are we collecting data on the fish, but John Reed and Stephanie Farrington are taking data on all of the invertebrates we see such as sponges, corals, hydroids, crinoids, sea stars, urchins, and lobster. The ROV we are using for this expedition is called the Phantom S2.  It weighs about 300 pounds when out of the water with the dimensions of 24 inches in height, 55 inches in length and 33 inches in width.  The Phantom S2 uses the tether to power the two ½ horizontal horsepower electric motors and the two vertical 1/4 vertical horsepower motors and has a maximum speed of 2 knots (2.3mph) and because of the length of the tether, is limited to a depth of 1000 feet.  The ROV is equipped with a high resolution video camera with a 12x zoom as well as a digital still camera with strobe to collect high quality color images of anything the scientists need for their research.  On this cruise we are averaging about 450 still images and about seven hours of video daily.  Two lasers mounted at 10 cm wide help the scientists measure specimens without bringing them to the surface.

Setting up the ROV onboard the ship takes about a day.  This requires the ROV team of Lance Horn and Glenn Taylor from the Undersea Vehicles Program out of University of North Carolina Wilmington to arrive at least 24 hours in advance of departure so that they can have the ship’s crew load all of the ROV equipment with the crane.  From there they set up the components in the dry lab and begin running the tether cables from the ROV, which is located on the deck, to the computer, which is located in the dry lab.  We also have to run a line up to our GPS device  and our VHF radio that are both installed on the flying bridge, and yet another cable to transfer the digital images to the computer, and the power line for the ROV engines.  Once the research gets underway, it is not uncommon for Lance and Glenn to spend as many as 12 hours a day working on preparing for the dive, operating the equipment during the dive, and then processing all of the data after the dive.  It is hard work and takes great attention to detail.

The hydrophone gets lowered into the water while the ROV is on a dive.

In order to communicate with the ROV while it is underwater the operators deploy a Trackpoint hydrophone over the side of the ship which must be taller than the hull of the ship, which on the Pisces is over 28 feet tall.  This hydrophone picks up the X,Y,Z coordinates from the ROV then uses the data from antenna mounted on the fly bridge of the ship to create GPS coordinates for the ROV.

This information is plotted into the Hypack mapping system and is used by both the ROV driver as well as the bridge of the ship.  This helps the officer on deck know what heading the ship needs to be traveling so the ROV driver can maneuver the ROV to where the scientists want to go. Depth is calculated by the delay in time that it takes the hydrophone to get a signal from the ROV.

Lance Horn piloting the ROV

Driving the ROV takes great skill and concentration.  Not only do you have to watch the ROV display footage to make sure you don’t run into anything, but you also have to constantly be aware of your heading so you don’t get the ROV too far off course.  The tether keeping the ROV in communication with the ship also has to be monitored.  Getting the tether wrapped around a rock overhang or part of a mast on a shipwreck is of great concern.  If the tether is severed or becomes too entwined, the ROV could be lost.  The ROV driver is in constant contact with the crew on the back deck who are watching the tether line as well as the bridge so that any necessary course corrections can be made quickly and efficiently.  Having too much tether in the water can also lead to tangling, so the tether is marked in 50 foot increments, which allows the deck crew to know how much of the tether line to feed into the water.  On our cruise, the longest the ROV has been below the surface has been 3.5 hours. Because of the intense concentration it takes to drive the ROV, four consecutive hours is the limit that a driver can do in one sitting.  If the dive needs to be longer than four hours, Lance and Glenn would trade duties, so if Lance was driving, he would rotate out onto the deck to monitor the tether while Glenn takes over at the controls.

The ROV control console

The ROV requires three consoles of components to operate.  The first is the ROV control console.  This is where the driver controls the ROV itself.  On this panel are the two joysticks that control the movement of the ROV through the water.  The joystick on the left controls the up, down and side to side motion.  The joystick on the right controls the forward, reverse, as well as left and right.  There are also control switches to tilt the camera so that it is hanging vertically within the cage to take pictures of the ocean floor.

The scientists on this cruise want a “bottom” shot every two minutes.  This is their way of “collecting” random samples of the habitat while we are making our way along the transect line.  There are also controls switches to turn on and off the lights, turn on and off the laser, and to switch over from the video camera to the still camera so digital still pictures can be taken.  Directly above the control panel is a flat screen monitor showing the live footage from the ROV so the pilot can see where the ROV is below the surface.

A multibeam image with transect lines is loaded into the Hypack software so the ROV can be navigated to where the scientists need to collect their data.

The middle console has all of the navigation components.  There is a GPS unit displaying the coordinates of the ship at all times.   It also contains a Trackpoint acoustic tracking system that provides position data for the ROV.  This is not only helpful to the driver, but the scientists take waypoints throughout the operation to help them match up the data they recorded while watching the live video feed from the ROV with the still images, and the temperature and depth data taken by a small CTD attached to the ROV cage.

Also on this cabinet is a rackmount computer using Hypack software.  The scientists can load the multibeam sonar information and the transect coordinates into the navigation computer.  This software gathers and logs information from the ROV as well as other navigational electronics so the driver sees a real time image of where the ROV is in relation to the ship and features of interest on the sea floor.  This also gives both the driver and the scientists an idea of where we are in relation to the transect line.  If multibeam images were available and downloaded into the navigation computer, the chief scientist can use those to adjust our heading off the transect line if she feels the structures they need to study are on a different heading than originally plotted.

The ROV video console

The third console contains the controls for the digital still camera as well as the digital recording devices.  Steve Matthews, part of the science team, has been manning the still photography on this cruise.  When the scientists see something they want a close up picture of, they ask the driver to stop the ROV and position it so the still camera can be zoomed in for a close up shot.  This will help the scientists to make the proper identification of all of the different species we photographed while on this cruise.

For this research trip, video and still images are all the scientists need to assess the efficacy of the MPAs.  The Phantom S2 has other tools that can be used depending on how the scientist needs to collect their data.  The ROV can be fitted with a sonar device which can be used to located objects, such as ship wrecks or other lost items, at ranges farther away than the video can see.  Scientists can also elect to use the claw for sample collection, a plankton net to gather plankton, and a fish collection suction device.

Personal Log

Myself driving the ROV

We sent styrofoam cups to a depth of 250m. The cup on the right is the original size. As you can see my cup, at left, shrank by more than half.

The bottom of the ocean has such incredible diversity!  Before being invited to be a part of this research expedition, I had only read about all of the amazing things we have seen in text books.  The ROV has allowed us to travel to depths that are inaccessible to recreational scuba divers and to visit sites that not too many other people have been to.  Every day we see different species and habitats.  It is interesting to compare areas that are inside the MPAs with those that are outside of the MPAs.  Even though each day might seem like we are doing the same thing over and over again, I am anxiously awaiting a glimpse of something that I have never seen before.  For each depth we dive to, there is a new set of species and habitat to learn about.  The deepest dive we have been on so far this cruise was at the Snowy Wreck MPA at about 25 m (833 ft) below the surface.  This location was really cool because there is an old ship wreck here that is full of corals and anemones and all sorts of fish species.  We also had a little fun while at the depth and shrunk some styrofoam cups.  Stephanie Farrington is an amazing artist and designed these fabulous cups for us each to send down to shrink.

Ocean Careers Interview

In this section, I will be interviewing scientists and crew members to give my students ideas for careers they may find interesting and might want to pursue someday.  Today I interviewed Lance Horn and Glenn Taylor, ROV operators from University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW).

Lance Horn

Mr. Horn, what is your job title?  I am the operations director of the Undersea Vehicles Program at University of North Carolina Wilmington.  I started at UNCW in 1985 as part of NOAA’s Underwater Research Center (NURC)  as a hard hat diver.  In 1987, I joined UNCW’s scuba and ROV program which has now become the Undersea Vehicles Program.

What type of responsibilities do you have with this job?  As director, I am in charge of lining up jobs for us, maintaining the budget, and finalizing the contracts from each project.  I also pilot and maintain the ROV itself.

What type of education did you need to get this job?  I graduated from the Florida Institute of Technology with an Associate’s Degree in Underwater Technologies.  In this program, we studied compressors, hydraulics, welding, scuba and underwater photography.

What types of experiences have you had with this job?  This job has allowed me to travel all over the world and to see some really cool things under the ocean’s surface.  My favorite ROV dive so far was when I went to Antarctica to map the trash dumped at the bottom of Winter Quarters Bay.  Before people realized what kind of impact indiscriminately dumping their trash overboard was doing to the habitats on the ocean floor, ships used to come into port at Winter Quarters Bay and dispose of their trash in the ocean.  This includes very large items such as 55 gallon drums, fire hoses, conex boxes, and even a bulldozer that fell through the ice!  My job was to use the ROV to create a map showing the location of the large objects so that it could be determined if it would be possible to recover these items for proper disposal.  As part of this project, we also had to take the ROV outside of the bay to have an undamaged habitat to use as a control variable for comparison with the bay.  Outside of the bay was amazing.  We were diving under six feet of ice and got to see an environment that not many others have seen, including purple worms, white sponges, and anemone.  It was beautiful.

What advice do you have for students wanting a career with ROVs?  Not every job requires a four year degree.  You can still find a good job doing something you love. I have been successful doing what I do with a two year Associate’s Degree.  Florida Institute of Technology was not an easy school.  I worked hard to earn my degree.

Glen Taylor

Mr. Taylor, what is your job title?  I am an ROV pilot and technician with the Undersea Vehicles Program and UNCW.

What type of responsibilities do you have with this job?  In addition to piloting the ROV, my primary responsibilities are to maintain the three console units that house all of the digital equipment we need to control the ROV.  This includes any rewiring that needs to be done or the replacement of equipment either for repairing broken parts or upgrading to newer electronics.

What type of education did you need to get this job?  I earned my Bachelors Degree from Clarkson College of Technology.  I went to work for General Electric in New York.  I was transferred to GE in Florida after which I decided to retire from GE and become a scuba dive master.  I went to work for NURC in St. Croix but was transferred to UNCW when the St. Croix office was closed.  This is where I hooked up with Lance in 1993 and learned to operate the ROV.

What types of experiences have you had with this job?  I have also been fortunate enough to travel the world with the ROV.  Diving at the Edisto MPA this week is probably the highlight of my career in ROV operation.  The reef features were fantastic, the water was clear, we had hardly any current, the ship was able to remain on course.  It was perfect conditions.

What advice do you have for students wanting a career with ROVs?  First and foremost, follow your passion.  What do you get excited about?  I have been driving ROVs for almost ten years and I still love coming to work each day.  To be successful in this field, you need a strong background in computers and technology.  You can be trained to drive the ROV, but strong technology skills are essential.  Another good skill to have is problem solving and trouble shooting.  Things might go wrong in the middle of a dive, you have to be able to figure out a solution right there on the spot to keep the dive going.

 

Chris Imhof, November 19, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Imhof
Onboard NOAA Ship Pisces
November 7 – 19, 2009

Mission: Coral Survey
Geographic Region: Southeast U.S.
Date: November 19, 2009

Science Log

After 3 days and many hours in front of computer screens and monitors I almost forgot I was on a boat. Tonight is my last night on the Pisces, and although at times it has been rough, I have started to get used to the rocking of the ship and know every crew member by name. I ran about the ship when I have had a second, to take in things knowing I will have chance tomorrow . I will miss looking across the open sea and having opportunities to catch a glimpse of a shark fin near the side of the ship and a huge sea turtle making its way across the waves. I will miss talking to the crew and the scientists, and working with Jeannine Foucault the other Teacher at Sea. I’ll probably write another log tomorrow to sum up the experience, but its hard

to rally up for a science log when you are tired and many of have to pack to disembark at Jacksonville tomorrow morning. As for the Pisces and her crew, they will make their way back to Pascagoula for the Holidays.

Jeannine Foucault, November 19, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeannine Foucault
Onboard NOAA Ship Pisces
November 7 – 19, 2009

Mission: Ecosystem Survey
Geographic Region: Southeast U.S.
Date: November 19, 2009

Seafloor ROV images

Seafloor ROV images

Science Log

Our last day of ROV dives and it was definitely worthwhile. PISCES held off the coast of South Carolina at the Edisto MPA (Marine Protection Area). We were able to get in four dives with the ROV. The scientists paid close attention to the marine habitat within the ecosystems of all four dives. The interesting conclusion was that all four dives had very different habitats. What is even more interesting is that these differing habitats affect the number of animals that live there. Some of the areas we saw were smooth sandy bottom and interspersed on the smooth bottom are rugged rocky outcrops.

The rocky reefs range in height from some being really short to some being very tall. Some of the rocky reefs can even be in a small area the size of a dinner plate and others are hundreds of square miles.

Rocky reefs from the ROV

Rocky reefs from the ROV

The important fact of the matter is that the rugged hard bottom is favored by many species of animals including corals, sponges, and other invertebrates. Scientists find that sunken ships or other debris that ends up at the bottom of the ocean becomes perfect habitat for animals. These areas protect fish species during spawning and from predators. Today’s discovery is that the most fish species we have seen was found not in the smooth sandy bottom but in fact in the rugged rocky outcrops and rocky reef ranges.

Things I have seen today:

hammerhead shark
sea turtle
sea cucumber
spotted goat fish
lobster
pencil urchin
banded butterfly fish
sand tilefish
sea biscuit

Question of the Day

What is a TED?

Jeannine Foucault, November 18, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeannine Foucault
Onboard NOAA Ship Pisces
November 7 – 19, 2009

Mission: Ecosystem Survey
Geographic Region: Southeast U.S.
Date: November 18, 2009

Instrumentation

Instrumentation

Science Log

Lionfish and more lionfish…..the South Atlantic coastline is getting overtaken by these funny little creatures. Scientists find that they are competing with the Grouper and Tilefish throughout the coastline and unfortunately winning. Speculation has it that at one time dive charters brought this species of fish to the coast for tourist purposes while other speculation tells that people who own aquariums once owned the lionfish kept them so long that they grew so big they had to get rid of them. What better way to get rid of them was to dump them into the South Atlantic Ocean? Nevertheless, they are here and destroying the populations of Grouper and Tilefish.

Seafloor images

Seafloor images

Since 2004 NOAA scientists have been working on this MPA (Marine Protected Area) project to gather data to identify the significant changes in species populations of the lionfish, grouper, and tilefish. Each year they come out to the same plotted MPA’s to check the habitat populations. Unfortunately, the lionfish numbers are increasing and the grouper and tilefish populations are decreasing. So what happens now? Do the grouper and tilefish relocate? Do they become endangered? Do we capture the lionfish and relocate them? There is no real answer to the problem at hand, but this is one example of the many ways NOAA scientists work on protecting marine life.

Today I was able to work hands on with launch and recovery of the ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle). Yep, hardhat and all! My job was to make sure the tether line didn’t get tangled and was being fed in and out of the ocean properly. Launch and recovery of the ROV can be a very dangerous operation if everyone is not communicating and alert.

I was also able to drive the ROV from inside the ship across the ocean floor about 223ft in depth. Driving was not as easy as it looked. Maneuvering the ROV in the direction to which the scientists need as well as not to tangle the tether. Once the end of the tether is near I had to radio up to the bridge to move the ship in whichever direction the scientists needed to explore next.

Finally, as the day was winding down acoustics lab was testing their equipment from the ship. The mammal biologists were able to identify sounds from several playing dolphins! I was able to listen to their playful audio for a while before they dissipated into the ocean.

What did I eat for dinner? Fresh sushi, of course!

Chris Imhof, November 18, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Imhof
Onboard NOAA Ship Pisces
November 7 – 19, 2009

Mission: Coral Survey
Geographic Region: Southeast U.S.
Date: November 18, 2009

Science Log

NOAA’s mission is to “protect, restore and manage the use of coastal and ocean resources.” The way NOAA does this is through science – a voyage like this may seem like moving from point to point and placing a really cool piece of technology in the water to see what’s on the bottom – but these are all tools that are being used to be able to carry out the tenets of protect, restore and manage.

We have visited half our sites now and have surveyed different environments in and out of Marine Protected Areas. Different environments, yet with commonalities – all the sites are near exposed “hard-bottom” or exposed limestone on the shelf bottom. There may be miles of sand waves and algae – but theses exposed, complex and bio-encrusted features are “oasis’s” for all sorts of ocean life – especially fish. As the ROV maneuvers across the sandy waves, it is usually the glint of a school of fish or reflection of a fish eye that provides a beacon to a feature. If these features are “oasis” habitats then they should be protected. Granted, these limestone blocks can do more damage to fishing line and gear, evident in the amount of line found in the high relief areas – but in the case of some of the North Florida MPA, we encountered the fragile deep water Occulina Coral which is vulnerable especially when nets are being dragged across these areas.

Another commonality noticed is the growing presence of the beautiful Lion Fish (Pterois volitans) – this native of Pacific waters was released intentionally or unintentionally in the early 1990’s around Florida and have since spread to areas above North Carolina and south to the Caribbean, especially along reefs and rocky outcrops. They join an infamous ranks of other invasive species including the European Green Crab, Asian Eel and Zebra Mussel. The Lion-Fish, besides having an array of venomous spines. has a keen strategy of “corralling” prey with their fins and eating them in one gulp. This will impact the small fish and crustaceans in these habitats as well as the added competition with indigenous or native predators such as snappers and grouper fish – which are currently commercially fished. This is where “manage” comes in – here is a “new” invasive species in that is growing in population and spreading geographically, impacting the habitat by out-competing, in some cases, the established predators – how can it be managed.

Especially when the Lion-fish has few natural enemies. The Lion Fish is a tricky one – as an invasive species, missions like this one help to understand the long-term impact the Lion-Fish is having on these habitats. Using technology like multi-beam mapping and ROV technology can provide data for scientists and in turn give councils, commissions and government the knowledge to manage these areas through smart-solution-based policy.

References:

coastalscience.noaa.gov/documents/factsheet_lionfish.pdf

http://www.magazine.noaa.gov/stories/mag135.htm

Jeannine Foucault, November 17, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeannine Foucault
Onboard NOAA Ship Pisces
November 7 – 19, 2009

Mission: Ecosystem Survey
Geographic Region: Southeast U.S.
Date: November 17, 2009

Taking a first look at the data

Taking a first look at the data

Science Log

What an exciting day! The first time we launched the ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) into the ocean at our first MPA (Marine Protected Area) in North Florida. The amount of manpower and communication that goes into something like this is just extraordinary. The deckhands must be available and working with the crane to gradually place the ROV into the water, the crew must be on the bridge communicating with the scientists and the deckhands to maneuver the ship where needed, and finally the scientists have to be working gathering data and making sure the ROV is placed where the MPA site is located. Even before the ROV is launched something called a CTD (Conductivity Temperature and Depth) is lowered into the ocean to gather water temperature, salinity, and depth. This CTD device is lowered twice in one day, once at the beginning of the day and once at the end of the day to give the scientists some raw data of the waters.

The ROV will usually “dive” for about an hour while the scientists record live footage. One scientist is actually driving the ROV from inside the ship. The ROV has four propellers that run from an electric motor supplied by the electricity source provided by the ship. It almost looks like he’s playing a video game when he is driving. It’s got two joysticks and a monitor that he follows.

Fish on the screen from the ROV

Fish on the screen from the ROV

Another job is where a scientist is keeping track of the 37″ TV monitor. He or she records the species of fish seen along with longitude, latitude, depth, and floor surface. Yet another scientist is working taking still and video photographs from the ROV while providing audio narration to aid in video analysis when reviewing back in the lab.

All the above is going on and still don’t forget the communication between the bridge and the scientists. If the scientists want to move the ship just about 400m due East then he will radio up to the captain on the bridge and the ship will move 400 m due East being very careful not to run over the ROV or cause any other safety concerns. Safety is NOAA’s biggest concern!

Take a look at the animals I have seen today:

Amberjack fish
Red snapper fish
Yellow tail snapper fish
Lion fish
Toad fish
Hog fish
Shark
Ramora fish
Reef butterfly fish
Soldier fish
Black coral
Goliath grouper!!!
Scamp fish
Moray eel
Sea turtle
Barracuda fish

Look these up and send me a photo….. I’ll let you know if that’s what I see!

Chris Imhof, November 17, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Imhof
Onboard NOAA Ship Pisces
November 7 – 19, 2009

Mission: Coral Survey
Geographic Region: Southeast U.S.
Date: November 17, 2009

Science Log

We sailed last night to our first “station” – The North Florida Marine Protected Area – and by 7:00 am this morning the ROV pilots Lance Brown and Glenn Taylor were going through the “pre-flight” checklist on the ROV; Lance working the controls in the lab, Glenn outside taking care of the deployment and extraction of the vehicle on the starboard weather deck. Soon they were meeting with the Lead NOAA scientist Andy David to talk through the operations of the deployment and extraction and more specifically the methodology of what they were trying to accomplish at this site.

The North Florida MPA area has been protected since 2004 – meaning no sailing or fishing occurs in this area. Some of the area has been mapped by multi-beam sonar – so what scientist then do with ROV technology is “Ground-Truthing” in which after examining the multi-beam maps – choose features to explore and check visually how they compare with their maps. Since the ROV sends real time video feed to the lab, the scientist watch and note the features, the animals that are present or not present in the habitat. They also perform a down shot every 2 minutes, or stop the ROV – point the camera down and take a picture – later in the lab they quantify the habitat by gridding the photograph and counting the number of species. Todays North Florida site tested sites inside the Marine Protected Area as well as sites/features outside the MPA for comparison as well as to help make future decisions of extending possible areas into the protective zone or even species.

After the scientists met, the Pisces crew and captain Jeremy Adams met on the weather deck to talk through the operation – sync their communications and what if scenarios. In all, there were 3 ROV dives which went extremely smooth, mainly due to the organization and communication of everyone involved.

The highlights of the dive were the spectacular features of the exposed limestone near the drop offs and the amazing habitats – for all my preparation the diversity of fish was overwhelming – I could identify a few featured fish like the Lionfish, barracudas and Moray Eels – I was unprepared to see a real sea turtle hanging out by some rocks or a Goliath Grouper which came out of nowhere. I learned many new fish which I hope to be able to call out from the monitor tomorrow like the Reef Butterfly, Squirrel Fish, Amberjack, Scamp, Soldier fish, Purple and Yellow Tail Reef Fish. I was helpful in identifying some of the Occulina deep coral species, the sponges (which you couldn’t miss) as well as pick out old fish line, a bottle and and an old anchor jammed into the rocks near the edge.

I’ll let the pictures and video slices tell most of the story. We are cruising all night again to our most northern site Edisto – off South Carolina and then work back from there.