An Underwater Drone to Explore the Deep

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John Foster, an archaeologist, talks about boats in that charming way all nautical lovers do – as if the vessels were supermodels.

Underwater

When he talks about the Steamship Tahoe, he calls it simply The Queen.

The Queen sailed across Lake Tahoe, a breathtaking lake that straddles the border between California and Nevada, and is nestled high up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  There are few places on earth as beautiful.

The steamer carried people, cargo and mail, and its passengers loved the ship’s elegance, beauty and comfort.

But nothing can stop the march of technology, and so once a road around the lake was built in the 1930s, demand for the SS Tahoe all but disappeared.  The company that owned it lost its contract to deliver the mail, and the once-proud ship fell into a sorry state of disrepair.

In came William Seth Bliss – the son of Duane Leroy Bliss, a local business tycoon – with a bright idea.  He would intentionally scuttle the ship, sinking it into the lake at a depth that meant glass-bottomed boats could sail over it and get a great view.  He hoped it would become a tourist attraction.

However, Bliss miscalculated.  When SS Tahoe hit the bed of Lake Tahoe on a fateful day in 1940, it slipped down a slope – and kept going.

When it finally rested, it was 150m (490ft) underwater.  Due to the lake’s high altitude – almost 2,000m above sea level – diving to that depth is incredibly difficult.  A team managed it in 2002, breaking a world record for high-altitude diving in the process.

Olympic swimmer

And that’s why I found myself on the banks of Lake Tahoe with the team from OpenROV.

OpenROV began, like many great ideas, as a crowdfunded Kickstarter project.  Its aim was to create what is essentially an underwater drone capable of plunging into water and filming whatever it can see.

Its task today was to reach the depths of Lake Tahoe and get up close to the SS Tahoe for an extended tour of the ship the likes of which nobody had enjoyed for more than 70 years.

They used a drone that costs $899 (£685).  It’s dramatically cheaper than anything else capable of such a voyage, and the team hopes its work will see thousands of explorers take to the water to look closely at places that may be right under our noses but are so rarely seen.

Later this year, a $1,499 model, named Trident, will go on sale.  It will be able to plunge to depths of 100m and travel at the speed of an Olympic swimmer.

As the SS Tahoe lies deeper than 100m, the team made several modifications for this one-off job.  They dropped a long tether into the water to enable the drone to be controlled remotely at such depths.  A team in a rubber dinghy on the surface transmitted data to mission control in a summerhouse commandeered by the team.

From here, using a PlayStation controller, the drone was navigated down to the ship. Watching online were some of OpenROV’s community of enthusiasts – some of whom backed the original Kickstarter to get the project off the ground (or rather, underwater).

‘She’s beautiful’

The drone went down, and down, until there it was: rusted, tangled, but unmistakably the ship we had been searching for.

The SS Tahoe is still upright, and the drone was able to swim onto its deck, peering into the cabins that given the environment were remarkably well preserved.  The ship’s dramatic slide into darkness had not ruined what made it so popular all those years ago.

The ship’s stack had buckled in the middle but was still unmistakable.  The drone was even able to glance through the ship’s portholes.

The team cheered, the online audience typed their approval, and Mr Foster simply whispered: “She’s beautiful.”

It was one of several trips the team made into the lake that week, but the dream of OpenROV, co-founder David Lang says, was to democratise underwater exploration: “Our ultimate goal is to inspire curiosity.”

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