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If you like Sylvia Earle's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Linda Buck,
Gertrude Elion,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Susan Hockfield,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Mario Molina,
Sally Ride,
Donna Shirley and
Edward O. Wilson

Sylvia Earle can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Sylvia Earle's recommended reading: Galapagos: World's End

Sylvia Earle also appears in the videos:
Women and the World of Science and Exploration,

Frontiers of Exploration: From the Cell to the Solar System

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Sylvia Earle in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Earth Day

Related Links:
National Geographic
Texas A & M
Women's Hall of Fame
Ocean Doctor
Marine Sanctuary

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Sylvia Earle
Sylvia Earle
Profile of Sylvia Earle Biography of Sylvia Earle Interview with Sylvia Earle Sylvia Earle Photo Gallery

Sylvia Earle Interview (page: 7 / 8)

Undersea Explorer

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  Sylvia Earle

Tell us about the Deep Rover, and the development of that amazing device. How did you begin working on it, and what were you trying to accomplish? What did it do for biologists that hadn't been done before?

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
Sylvia Earle: In 1979, when I made the dive in the Jim, I met and began talking with Graham Hawkes, a creative engineer who had something to do with reconfiguring the Jim to go deeper, and to modernize it. At that time, he was working on various new devices for ocean exploration, primarily for commercial, industrial applications. One system, called the Wasp, was another articulated diving suit that followed the Jim. It had propellers that made it fly through the water. Still looked very much like an astronaut suit, however. He also came up with a system called the Mantis. There have been almost three dozen small submersibles developed over the years. The Mantis, like the Jim and Wasp, is operated with a cable back to the surface. It enables the operator, the diver, or pilot, in a one-atmosphere configuration, to operate the manipulators from within. Instead of having arms down metal sleeves, as in the Jim Suit, the arms are kept inside, and artificial limbs, manipulators, are operated from inside.

When I met Graham Hawkes, he was trying develop manipulator systems to reproduce what we can do with our own hands. This was a valid concept, whether inside a submarine or any manned system, but also for robotic devices, so that you could sit on the surface and operate a machine equipped with mechanical arms from thousands of feet away. You could use it up in space, radio operated, or in the water through a hardware connection.

The discussions that Graham and I began to have were: "Well, why aren't there devices that make it possible to go down to the deepest part of the ocean? We are, after all, living in an age when space craft take us to the moon. We're talking about going to Mars. We're sending little robots beyond our own solar system. Why can't we go seven miles? Its just ridiculous. What's holding us back?" Well, Graham, the good engineer, responded as an engineer would, in describing all the problems that have inhibited our access to the great depths. Pressure, of course. At seven miles beneath the surface, on the bottom, the pressure amounts to something on the order of 16,000 pounds per square inch. Sitting here, in this room, we experience 14.7 pounds per square inch. And every 33 feet you go down, its 14.7 pounds per square inch more. At seven miles, all this accumulates to 16,000 pounds per square inch. So that's one of the problems, coming up with a material that is strong enough to endure that kind of great pressure. Working in the dark, working in the cold -- problems that can be solved and certainly are not insurmountable, but the whole idea of through-water communication is difficult. Radios don't work underwater. So how do you do this? Acoustic means are possible, but the development of appropriate systems has lagged far behind what we have accomplished for communication in an atmosphere that is more familiar, in the above water circumstances, and in space. So after listening to all of this, I said, "Well okay, but there must be some solutions to these problems. What do we have to do to overcome these difficulties?" And this is how the dialogue started.

He was in England, so we corresponded. When the book I was doing for National Geographic was released, he came back over and participated in the sort of celebration that we had, and saw the film about the program we were both involved with. He had been thinking about what systems could be devised using known materials. Sketched on a napkin somewhere in a file there is something that looks remarkably like the system that ultimately came to be known as Deep Rover. It was a distillation of these discussions we'd had about an atmospheric diving system that ultimately can go to the deepest part of the sea. It was envisioned that Deep Rover would someday be fitted with a glass sphere for a pressure hull. Glass is one of those wonderful materials that behaves as a liquid, and under pressure, in theory, becomes increasingly strong as the molecules get closer together. There are other materials that can be used, and in fact have been used. Steel has been used for a pressure hull. In 1960 that made it possible for two men, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, to go to the deepest part of the sea and come back, which is the critical part of it. Round trips are really important. This was a device known as the bathyscaphe Trieste. They made one excursion that lasted for about a half an hour, but it hasn't been done since.

It seems like such a logical thing: let's have full access to wherever in the ocean that we want to go. Why should we stop arbitrarily at 200, because that's the maximum that's possible for scuba tanks? Why stop at 3000 feet, or at 5000 feet? Why not just say, how deep is the ocean? Let's build a system that will go to the maximum and then you don't have to worry about depth anymore. Let's provide it with plenty of life supports so that "how long?" is not really the issue. We have that technological capability, but back in 1979, when these conversations began, no one had really addressed these issues.

Deep Rover was the first tangible step in that direction. It wouldn't be able to go all the way down, but at least we had solved some of the engineering problems, and dealt with known, tried and true materials. It couldn't go to 35,000 feet, but it could go to 3000 feet. We equipped the system with these special manipulators that had occupied much of Graham Hawkes' time and attention. He had come up with something that would be very dexterous, to faithfully replicate the action of your own arms and hands, to be able to pick up a pencil, for example, and write your own name. That's not commonly possible in most manipulators, but it is in the ones that he devised. He went beyond that, to bring back to the operator some of the sensory feedback that we take for granted. The sense of touch, the sense of motion, a sense of pressure, of force. With a stroke of that rare thing that I regard as genius, Graham hit on the idea of using acoustics as the means of bringing sensory feedback to the operator. When the manipulator reaches out and touches something, it sounds hard, it sounds rough, it sounds smooth. From the time that we are children, we know that metal sounds like metal, that cardboard, when you touch it, sounds like cardboard. Wood has a wooden sound when you tap it or touch it or scrape it. That's exactly what happens. Accelerometers are used, and sound is synthesized to sound appropriately to the operator. If you press hard you get a kind of growl. It sounds as if you are meeting resistance. Motion is translated back to the operator as another quality of sound. It sounds faster, like an engine starting up and going faster. Speed, the force of it, and the tactile sense all come back to the operator through your ears. It may sound a little complicated, but the human brain is just marvelous in being able to listen and sort out an overlying pattern of sounds. You can listen to an orchestra, but hear the flutes and the violins and the horns, and hear a bell at the same time. These are only three qualities of sounds, and you don't have to use them all at once if you don't want to.

I have gone on at some length about this to set the capability of this machine apart from what has gone before. It was possible, 60 years ago, in Beebe's Bathysphere, to go out and look through and see things, but Beebe experienced the same frustration that I did, when I used submarines that did not have manipulators. You sort of scratch on the glass like a child in a candy store with no nickel. You can look but you can't touch, you can't taste. It is enormously frustrating. Having a system that will go where your own arms cannot go is tremendously important. The better they are, the better the quality of work you can accomplish.

Cameras are the same way. You can get cameras that faithfully replicate, and even go beyond what your own eyes can pick up. Night vision cameras can enhance the small amount of light that might be available. These are the kinds of instruments that have been added to submersibles such as Deep Rover.

It's one thing to make a sketch of Deep Rover and scheme about how it's going to be. It's another to raise the money to actually build one. Graham Hawkes and I tried to find supporters to share this vision and build two Deep Rovers, because the idea of buddy diving submarines, like buddy diving divers, makes a lot of sense. Although Deep Rover, as Graham Hawkes envisioned it, would be a clear sphere with two manipulators in the front to operate as extensions of the pilot's arms. And the battery packs below, life support behind and so on. Lights in the front, cameras, et cetera. All the manipulators. It looks like a little submarine, but in fact it is a diving suit. It is an extension of the operator. Funding was a challenge. We weren't able to get what we wanted soon enough. Starting in 1981, we finally gave up on the idea of philanthropic support, and decided to do what Graham had successfully done before, and start a business. We hadn't been able to identify a market for Deep Rover but we were able to identify a market for robotic devices. So we began Deep Ocean Technology, and Deep Ocean Engineering, For the next three years, we mostly did just that; building large robots equipped with the same kind of manipulators that ultimately would be used on Deep Rover.

Finally, through a collaboration with our ally Phil Newton, and the company Can-Dive, and working with funds provided with the Canadian Government, Deep Rover was launched in 1984. This occurred in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Later the system was moved to Vancouver, but it was not until 1985 that it was first used for a scientific project off the Monterey Canyon. Dr. Bruce Robison, a distinguished zoologist and a friend of many years, who also believed in the concept of Deep Rover, sponsored a project with funding from the National Science Foundation, using Deep Rover for a series of exploratory dives. These have become a classic in terms of what has been learned about the Monterey Canyon.

Soon after that, with sponsorship that we gathered from several sources, we were able to get together a series of dives for Deep Rover near San Diego. These were the record-making excursions to 1000 meters, a little more than 3000 feet. Graham went first, as the designer of the system, which is only right. I had the fun of being the second person to try it on, and also go down to the same depth. The third was Phil Newton, who had joined with us, with sponsorship by the Canadian government to develop and to finally launch the first Deep Rover. The final person who later was able to take Deep Rover down to this 3000-foot area was Bruce Robison, the zoologist. He is now at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

We worked together on a project in the Bahamas. I had the fun again of using Deep Rover for exploratory dives. It is extraordinary to be able to step into this clear sphere, sitting in an armchair like this, and just imagine. If you want to go forward, you simply slide your arms forward a little bit. And microswitches under the arm rests kick in, engaging the thrusters, and forward you go. You want to go in reverse, you slide your arms back a little bit. If you want to dive, press down with your wrists, the vertical thrusters are engaged, and down you go. If you want to come up, you press down with your elbows and lift your wrists, and you come up. If you want to really come back up to the surface, not just modify the position a little bit, there is a lever over your head which modifies the ballast. Either you displace ballast, and become lighter and return to the surface, or by allowing water ballast to be taken into the tanks, you become heavier and you sink. By fine-tuning the ballasts over your head with this handle, it's possible to become perfectly neutral, and be like a jelly fish, and just be there as a piece of the water column, to be one with the creatures who are there. That's what Bruce Robison and his colleagues did in Monterey. It's what I did in my several dives in San Diego and then later in the Bahamas. To be able to go down, along those beautiful drop-offs, and to see the change in life as light diminishes, finally into blackness. And to see the bituminous creatures again like fireworks burst and illuminating the water column around you as you either descend or more forward. It's a marvelous experience. It's a thrill at every turn. It's an opportunity for discovery of the sort that we must have if we are to understand how the ocean really works.

Your collaboration with Graham Hawkes has been like a marriage of science and technology, don't you think?

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
Sylvia Earle: It's marvelous for scientists to work with engineers such as Graham Hawkes. You can set goals like, "I'd like to fly with the tuna fish. I'd like to hover mid-water with these lovely diaphanous jelly critters. I would love to reach out and pick up something without crushing it." Engineers can come up with a lot of these things on their own, but it is very useful for them to know what scientists' goals are. It's the logical thing to do. It should have been done much more than it has been historically, and I'm sure it will be in the future.

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