By BECKY GILLETTE
It has been said that the ocean is the last frontier for exploration on Earth. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), only about five percent of the ocean has been explored. And just as aerial drones have revolutionized flight, underwater robotic vehicles are revolutionizing ocean research, defense and natural resources exploration. But, until recently, there was no certification program in the U.S. to train people to operate unmanned maritime systems (UMS).
That is why a June 1 graduation of 15 students from an intensive, five-week course at the University of Southern Mississippi was considered to be historically significant. Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet, who was present for the graduation, likened the achievement to what NASA did with the first spaceflight.
“This class should be mighty proud because the national impact of this certification and the skills taught throughout the course will be felt for decades,” Gallaudet said. “Look around the room at your fellow graduates. Each of you has embarked on a journey no one else has attempted. The work you have put in for the last few weeks has advanced the defense of the United States immensely and we can’t wait to see what you do next.”
Dr. William “Monty” Graham, director of USM’s School of Ocean Science and Technology (SOST), said the program was designed to provide a rigorous, hands-on academic program to introduce the students to UMS and the decision processes needed to operate them.
“Students developed skills in disciplines such as electronics, programming, policy and application,” Graham said. “The demand for unmanned technologies is only increasing. Operating ships is very expensive, and sometimes it is difficult to get to certain locations where you can alternatively send an unmanned vehicle. The areas where unmanned systems use is increasing in utility include defense and homeland security, marine resource mapping and monitoring, oil and gas exploration, scientific research, and charting and navigation.”
The 15 students came from far and wide, and included civilian and military personnel from the Naval Oceanographic Office Fleet Survey Team and Naval Oceanography Mine Warfare Center at the John C. Stennis Space Center, the Submarine Development Squadron 5 in Bangor, Wash., the Naval Oceanography Special Warfare Center in San Diego, Calif, NOAA in Norfolk, Va, and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center based in Newport, R.I.
Graham said demand for experts in UMS is growing and will grow even more in the future.
“In fact, we are seeing a tremendous interest from the U.S. Navy in continuing this program and expanding its capacity,” Graham said.
Some people think of the deep ocean as a dark, featureless, monotonous place. Graham said that isn’t true. The ocean has mountain ranges and canyons that contain sea life that can only be imagined.
“It’s difficult to manage something when you don’t know what’s there,” Graham said.
The class’s instructor was SOST’s Dr. Vernon Asper, who has frequently used UMS for research in Antarctica. He said it was challenging packing 10 semester hours of teaching into just five weeks of class time.
“Scheduling was crucial because of how intensive the nature of the class is,” Asper said. “Seeing how quickly the students began to grasp the concepts and truly grow their understanding of the unmanned systems was incredibly gratifying as their teacher.”
Asper said students learned core fundamentals of using gliders, powered unmanned underwater vehicles and autonomous surface vehicles. In addition to learning how to chart and pilot these vessels, they also learned how to build them.
“Building the glider really brought a lot of the topics together for the class,” Asper said. “Seeing how the vehicle you’re using is made from inside to out put everything into perspective for them.”
Asper said robotic vehicles are used to do what is nearly impossible to do any other way.
“A good example is a project we had in Antarctica where we used a glider, an autonomous vehicle that propels itself by changing its buoyancy, to study the food chain that supports Adélie Penguins in the Ross Sea,” Asper said. “The glider had sensors on it that measured the amount of phytoplankton, algae that are at the bottom of the food chain, and a sonar that monitored the distribution of krill, which are small shrimp-like animals that eat algae and are eaten by penguins. Coupled with satellite tags on the penguins, we were able to monitor the entire food chain throughout a complete summer feeding season.”
Asper said this wasn’t without some drama. They had one glider get stuck under some sea ice and another under the floating ice shelf. But they were both able to swim free after trying for a few days.
The UMS class that recently graduated was for the first tier in a three-tier program. Students going through the entire tier structure will graduate with a full graduate degree.