ONR Science & Technology Focus
               Oceanography       Space Sciences       Blow the Ballast!       Teachers' Corner   
Rescue of the Squalus Swede Momsen Submarines People Under the Sea Resources

People Under the Sea: Submersibles - 1960 - 2000

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 View.

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 ROV's controls.

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.

previous page next page