Ballard Team Has High Hopes for Deep-Water Robot

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A Better Tool

To accomplish this goal, Hercules is outfitted with two mechanical arms that can lift, push, and grab. The left arm is more powerful. The right is designed for more delicate, intricate work. Each arm has a pair of stainless steel "fingers."

The vehicle employs a variety of archaeological tools. Newman explained: "The primary tool for moving sediment is a jetting system, a fairly benign little jet and a suction system to try to contain the sediment—because you won't be able to see anything unless you do something about that. We'll also have brushes and some other tools. It's all very new technology, and it's experimental."

The vehicle is also equipped with visual and acoustic sensors and high-definition television systems.

Newman's team has put Hercules together in little over a year. His biggest concern: integrating all of the features so that Hercules can function properly. "It's a brand new system so there are thousands of things that need to work, and not everything has worked together yet," he said.

Treading Softly

Hercules's mission in robotic life is to dig into shipwrecks, said Newman. "To pull off the first layer of the amphora and see what's underneath."

With that ability comes a scientific responsibility that the team embraces. "Anything we do beyond…visual [inspection does] damage to the site. And that's a big deal," said Newman. "We will document the site before we touch anything, move the surface artifacts off the site proper, and document each one [in the process] so we could virtually recreate the site. Then we'll start digging and find out what's below."

The effort mimics the work of underwater archaeologists diving in shallower water, but will be unlike anything ever attempted at such depths.

"We're pioneering a whole new area of archaeology in terms of deep ocean work that truly [meets] archaeological standards—supportable in an academic vein," he continued. "This will be the first time to my knowledge that anybody has tried to do more than just pick up objects that are already exposed on the bottom [of the ocean floor]."

Hercules recently arrived in Malta, where this summer's expedition will soon begin aboard the Woods Hole research ship R/V Knorr. The vessel has been good to Ballard. It was aboard this ship that he made the 1985 discovery of the RMS Titanic.

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