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Technology's impact: Robert Ballard

Technology's impact: Robert Ballard

FRAMINGHAM (10/06/2003) - Man has always regarded what lies beneath the world's oceans with both fear and fascination, but the frigid temperatures and enormous pressure of the deep render the human body an ineffective tool for exploring this inhospitable environment. Technological innovations like the Aqua-Lung, the bathysphere, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and deep sonar systems have helped us reach farther into the deep and unlock some of its mysteries. The more we learn, however, the more we realize we're only scratching the surface.

Technology helps us go deeper, see better, handle objects or bring other people along for a virtual ride. The technologies we used for last summer's mission to the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean fulfilled several of my primary scientific and philosophical objectives. The first was to improve access to submerged targets with advanced ROVs like our new unmanned submersible Hercules, which is hardened to the extremes of the deep--the darkness, the temperatures that are either numbingly cold or meltingly hot, the inconceivable pressures. The second was to provide the sensory feedback we need for remote exploration. Hercules is fitted with high-definition video and force-feedback manipulator arms that helped us perform deepwater archaeology and excavation in a way never before possible, handling centuries-old artifacts with the delicacy of a human hand.

We also, for the first time ever, connected to other scientists and researchers (as well as the public) by wiring our mission live via satellite and Internet technology. No one had ever done this at the level of sophistication that we did during this mission. It opened a window into the process of scientific discovery and allowed a shared view never before possible.

I have always believed that the constraints of time, money and access to great talent have slowed the pace of scientific discovery. Imagine being able to connect to the greatest scientists in the world while a mission is under way, showing them what you've discovered and being able to ask--in real-time--"What am I looking at?"

In the past, it might have taken months, or years, to vet a finding from an expedition through the scientific community members and tap into their talent and knowledge. It would then take months or years more to raise the funds to go back to sea with the right expert on board. Now, if we need an expert in biology or a certain geologist, he can tap into the live feed and help us while the mission is still in progress.

This level of connectivity will advance the pace of scientific discovery exponentially. In the same way, this live mission broadcast has turned the expedition into an educational experience. Children all over the world will be able to follow the mission as it's happening.

There's a lot of ocean out there. And there's a lot of history buried beneath it. The future of deep-sea exploration will be extraordinary. We will move from ROVs to autonomous, intelligent underwater vehicle systems that will be able to explore the deep ocean bottom--doing geologic surveys or acting as videographers of the deep--without being on a leash, without being limited by their human pilots' vision and stamina.

The kids who followed last summer's mission over the Web will tomorrow lead the world in new deep-sea discoveries, giving us new answers to old questions, and embarking on incredible new adventures.

SIDEBAR

Robert Ballard

What He Thinks About: The ocean.

Where He Thinks: He is an Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Society, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, founder of the Jason Project and president of The Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn.

What He's Written: The Eternal Darkness (2002).

Where He Is On The Web: His webpage.

Interesting Bit: Robert Ballard has led or participated in more than 100 deep-sea expeditions, including the discovery of German battleship Bismarck and the ocean liner Lusitania. In 1985, he and a joint American-French team of reserachers found the R.M.S. Titanic. As a child, Ballard's favorite book was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and his hero was Captain Nemo.

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