In 1962, the U.S. Navy funded Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's
(WHOI's) newly created Deep Submergence Laboratory to build a small,
maneuverable submarine. ALVIN was born in 1964 and took
its first dive on June 26. It was named after WHOI researcher Allyn
Vine, who had long championed the need for such a research vessel. ALVIN was designed to operate under battery power, allowing
it to rise, sink and move without being attached to its mother ship. ALVIN was designed with neutral buoyancy, so it could cut
its power and remain suspended in the water column indefinitely. ALVIN had a mechanical arm for collecting bottom samples
and a camera to record sights on the voyage. The submersible was
designed to hold two passengers for 8 1/2 hours and travel to a
depth of 6,000 feet (1,829 meters). Today, after being refitted, ALVIN can reach depths of 4,500 meters (14,764 feet), is
about 23 feet (or 7 meters) long and weighs close to 34,000 pounds.
In case an emergency occurs, ALVIN has on board enough
food and equipment to last three people 216 hours. Still in operation
today, ALVIN has more than proved its worth. ALVIN found a lost H-bomb off the Spanish Coast in 1966, was lost under
5,500 feet (1,676 meters) of water on Oct. 16, 1968, but was recoverd
on Sept. 1, 1969, discovered hydrothermal vents in 1977 and explored
the sunken Titanic in 1986. In 1964, the U.S. Navy launched Deep Jeep at the Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake,
California. Deep Jeep could dive 2,000 feet and hold a
2 crew of two. It was built to do oceanographic research and as
a general underwater work submersible. Other U.S. Navy submersibles
built for the same purposes include Hikino, Nemo, Makakai and Deep
In 1969, the Navy's nuclear research submarine NR-1 was
born. General Dynamics built the 146-foot long vessel. The sub,
which is 12 feet wide and weighs about 365 tons, can only travel
at a speed of 4 knots and thus relies on its support ship, the SSV
Carolyn Chouest, to tow it to its intended research sites.
Once onsite, the NR-1 can dive 3,000 feet (914 meters).
Its purpose in the Navy is to travel the ocean collecting oceanographical
and geographical information and installing and performing upkeep
on submerged systems. The NR-1 has sonar systems able to
find objects a mile away, a mechanical arm able to lift 1,000 pounds
and retractable wheels able to drive over the ocean's bottom.
Researchers wanted an easily maneuverable, unmanned system able
to venture into areas too unsafe or small for traditional submersibles.
The idea for a Jason/Argo system was born. The first vehicle
created was Jason Jr., a smaller prototype of what Jason was to become. This remotely operated vehicle (ROV) was attached
to ALVIN and tested in the mid-1980s during the exploration
of the Titanic wreck. Cables attached Jason Jr. to ALVIN where its occupants could control each movement of Jason Jr.
Today, the system has three vehicles: Jason, Medea and Argo-II. Jason and Medea are meant
to operate together: Medea surveying a wide area while Jason images and samples a smaller area. They can travel up to (19,684
feet) 6,000 meters depth. Argo-II is meant to be towed
about 3 to 15 meters above the ocean's bottom and can also be used
at depths up to 19,684 feet (6,000 meters). A fiber optic cable
attaches it to a mother ship providing power and direction to the
Now, scientists are creating AUVs, or autonomous underwater vehicles. Autonomous
means independent or self-governing. These are vessels designed
to operate without the aid of people. Once an AUV is released, it
can complete an already programmed route and return to a specified
point to be retrieved. The idea is that a researcher will be able
to release the vessel and it will function on its own for weeks
or months, sending its data to a homebase on a boat or even on shore.
This will save the expense and trouble of having a ship or manned submersible on location for the duration of an experiment. ONR and
the sponsors a yearly competition where college students create
such vessels. Learn about the competition from The
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) website.