March 15, 2012      

Less than three decades ago, the Titanic sat undiscovered at the bottom of the sea. Now, as an article in the Sydney Morning Herald noted recently, the wreck site has been meticulously mapped by autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), revealing minute details of how the legendary ship sank. ?Marks on the muddy ocean bottom suggest, for instance, that the stern rotated like a helicopter blade as the ship sank, rather than plunging straight down,? according to the article.

Of course, that same capability to collect insightful information at crushing depths has what are perhaps more practical uses. Recently, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution teamed with Air France to locate the black boxes within the passenger jet that crashed in the Atlantic after leaving Brazil in June 2009. AUVs descended more than 2.5 miles to the jagged sea bottom, which according to Dr. Frank Herr, director of the Ocean Battlespace Sensing Department at the U.S. Navy?s Office of Naval Research, was ?Rougher than almost any place that you can think of in the Rocky Mountains.? Nevertheless, the boxes were eventually found and recovered.

Many secrets remain on the sea bottom. But even now, AUVs, sometimes operated by private groups, are solving them one by one. Last September, for example, in a model for-profit venture, ?treasure hunters using robots found the wreck of the Gairsoppa, which sank during World War II ?about 300 miles off the coast of Ireland, at a depth of nearly three miles. Laying deeper than the Titanic, the wreck is believed to hold the largest haul of precious metal lost at sea,? some 200 tons of silver, according to Discovery News, incentive enough for any adventurer to set out with an AUV in search of lost undersea riches.