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Sonar, Robots Help Salvage Ancient Shipwrecks

Odyssey Marine Exploration uses the latest sonar technology and robotic divers to unearth historic vessels from the ocean floor.

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Approximately 3 million shipwrecks litter the ocean floor, according to the United Nations. Hundreds already have been discovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration. The team of researchers, scientists, technicians and archaeologists is dedicated to discovering shipwrecks and bringing their stories to the surface.

"It's like working in the world's largest museum," Ellen Gurth, archaeological curator for Odyssey Marine Exploration, of the company's missions, said in an interview. In Odyssey's traveling exhibit, currently located in New York's Times Square, visitors can view over 500 shipwreck artifacts, operate a robotic "arm" to pick up coins, or zoom in on a "photomosaic" of a wreck site.

Odyssey currently is 300 miles off the coast of Ireland, excavating the SS Gairsoppa. The steel-hulled British cargo steamship sank on Feb. 17, 1941 after being attacked by a German U-Boat. So far, 48 tons of silver have been uncovered from the wreck, which is submerged at 15,000 feet below sea level.

Excavations like these are possible only with cutting-edge technology. Mark Gordon, president and chief operational officer for Odyssey Marine Exploration, described how modern technological innovations have been crucial to Odyssey's success. "It has been an evolutionary process. We take bits and pieces [of new technology] and adapt them to our specific needs," Gordon said.

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The advances in sonar software, which the team uses to find shipwrecks, has proven invaluable. After determining a 300-square-mile estimate of a shipwreck's location, the team sets out on the Odyssey Explorer recovery vessel to do a preliminary search using side-scanning sonar technology. The sonar is encased in a metal body, called the towfish, which is attached to the Explorer by cable and hovers 60-200 feet over the seabed.

As the towfish moves, the sonar emits "pings" that echo back when an object is detected. The echo data is transmitted to the surface, where a technician monitors the sonogram images. "The improvement of sonar allows us to get better images at higher rates and speed," explained Gordon. With previous technology, technicians had to examine every sonar target that could possibly be significant. With the most recent software, artificial intelligence determines which objects are of interest, speeding up the broad-scanning process.

Piloting the robot
Piloting the robotic explorer.

Once the wreck is found, it is inspected with a high-resolution sonar pass. If the ship is still not deemed worthy of inspection, the team can deploy a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV), a small robot that explores with cameras and lighting in deep water to give a better view. If the site is ready for excavation then a working-class ROV is deployed.

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