How Robot Submarines Are Imaging The Titanic in 3-D
To perform the first scientific survey of the entire Titanic site this summer, the crew of 30 researchers needed several...
To perform the first scientific survey of the entire Titanic site this summer, the crew of 30 researchers needed several miles of fiber-optic cable and a phalanx of robots. Now that they’ve imaged every surface of the historic ruins, all you’ll need to view their 3-D photo-real model of the wreck is a computer.
The multimillion-dollar mission—funded by Premier Exhibitions, the company that holds the salvage rights to the ruins—pairs robotic-submarine experts from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and other organizations with archaeologists eager to conduct the first full scientific survey of the site. Despite many previous explorations, including director James Cameron’s documentary ventures to the deep, only about 60 percent of the Titanic had been photographed. During the multi-week cruise of the site, about 400 miles south of Newfoundland, team members operated three underwater robots around the clock, scanning with sonar the ship’s exterior and the entire four square miles of artifacts that the Titanic scattered as it sank and then shooting high-definition 3-D video and more than 100,000 photos.
This month the team will stitch together the sonar and optical data to produce a 3-D model of the bow, but it could take another year to convert the 200 terabytes of data into a consumer product. In the meantime, raw footage will help scientists determine exactly how the ship sank. “How did the boat snap in half? Did the bow really plow in nose-first?” asks David Gallo, the co-expedition leader and Woods Hole’s director of special projects. “We’ll have all these clues, such as the scattered pieces of the hull’s midsection, to put together in detail how the Titanic came apart. It will be like a CSI of Titanic.”
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How To Make a Virtual Titanic:
1. Set Up The Grid
Researchers throw two sonar transponders overboard. Those sink 2.5 miles to the seafloor and begin broadcasting a signal that will later allow robots to triangulate their exact location as they collect data.
2. Send In The Sonar
Two torpedo-shaped autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) sweep the four-square-mile site with 3-D sonar to outline the ship’s shape and locate buried objects.
3. Film The Wreck
A remotely operated underwater vehicle joins the AUVs, taking high-definition 3-D video and photos of the ship down to the millimeter, as well as any relics on the seafloor.
4. Build A Model
Back on land, scientists analyze the sonar data to produce a 3-D model of the wreckage site. Then they wrap the structure in a mosaic of 3-D photos and video snapshots to produce the final photo-real, 3-D shipwreck.