According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), less than ten percent of the global ocean floor is mapped using modern sonar technology. If we put that into dry-land terms, for those of us who inhabit the (small) portion of the Earth that sits above the great seas, it would be as if only about 26,000 square miles of Texas was actually mapped with modern technology.
The other 90-plus percent — roughly 243,000 square miles — would be terra incognita, a mysterious and unknown terrain for anyone attempting to navigate their way through the state.
This unmapped portion of the subsea Earth might not seem like a big deal to the average human, who will likely rarely ever travel more than a quarter-mile from the edge of a landmass or deeper than 100 feet below the surface of the ocean. Both numbers represent minuscule and insignificant excursions into the vast realm of the Earth’s undersea world.
However, for some — such as the U.S. Navy — having a deeper understanding and knowledge of the geographic features that dominate the world’s ocean floors is critical. Otherwise, accidents are more likely to happen, such as the one that befell the USS San Francisco in January of 2005. The San Francisco, a nuclear-powered submarine, collided with an uncharted undersea mountain, which resulted in the death of a sailor aboard and nearly sank the vessel.
According to an article in “Fast Company” magazine, two former Navy SEALs would like to help in the effort to better understand the ocean floor, and perhaps even play a part in preventing accidents like the one that happened to the San Francisco 16 years ago. Joe Wolfel and Judson Kauffman founded the Austin, Texas-based company Terradepth to do just that.
Terradepth has developed a 30-foot long robotic submarine that will be able — using a camera, two types of sonar, and a data collection suite — to autonomously map the ocean floor and acquire various other types of environmental data about it and its environs.
The vessel will reportedly be able to access 98 percent of the ocean, given its ability to travel as deep as 20,000 feet under the surface, and its ability to operate without a human pilot. The company’s website refers to the vehicle as an “AxV.”
While the submersible is currently in the prototype phase and runs on hydrocarbon fuels, Terradepth plans for its future AxV prototypes to run on a hydrogen fuel cell generator that would be able to recharge at sea. The patent for that system is still pending, according to the article, and Terradepth’s website refers to its operations as “low cost and high endurance data collection.” Again, this refers to its ability to recharge batteries, as well as its lack of a human crew to limit the endurance and reach of the AxV.
Kauffman calls the effort a sort of “Google Earth of the oceans,” and noted that Terradepth plans to share the collected data with other researchers in the ocean mapping field, as well as with the general public. According to the company’s website, Terradepth plans to change the way humanity “interacts with the ocean.” It is a bold vision, but one that could provide valuable knowledge to the world’s researchers, militaries, and those working in the fields of climate science and oceanography. Maybe, just maybe, the two former SEALs and their team can pull it off.