Australian Antarctic Magazine — Issue 37: December 2019

Mini-submersible to study coastal communities beneath the ice

Dr Jonny Stark (left), SOSub Director Kelsey Treloar, and Dr Glenn Johnstone, with the ROV, at a wharf in Hobart.
Dr Jonny Stark (left), SOSub Director Kelsey Treloar, and Dr Glenn Johnstone, with the ROV, specially designed to fit through a 40cm hole in the Antarctic sea ice to study seafloor communities. (Photo: Eliza Grey)
Benthic ecologist Dr Glenn Johnstone takes the ROV through its paces in Hobart.

A sophisticated underwater mini-submersible, designed and built in Tasmania, will spend the summer in Antarctica exploring under the sea ice at Australia’s Davis research station. The Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) has been purpose built for Antarctica and is packed with hi-tech features including lasers that can measure the size of objects on the sea floor.

Australian Antarctic Division scientists and ROV pilots, Dr Glenn Johnstone and Dr Jonny Stark, said the $60,000 machine was designed to fit down a 40 centimetre hole in the sea-ice.

“One or two scientists can take this small ROV out onto the sea ice, drill a hole and lower it in to do the same work we would have previously used a team of divers to do, which required significant logistics and equipment,” Dr Johnstone said.

The ROV measures 35 centimetres in diameter and will carry three cameras as it explores up to 30 different sites around the station. It can dive down to 100 metres below the sea ice and spend 3–4 hours exploring.

“This season, we’re focused on learning the capabilities of the ROV and testing a range of methods and techniques to develop a long-term monitoring program,” Dr Stark said.

“We have a reasonable understanding of the habitats in the coastal areas around Davis research station, but we know very little about the surrounding fjords and a ROV is the most efficient way of exploring these areas.”

The ROV was built by Southern Ocean Subsea (SOSub) located in Kingston, south of Hobart.

SOSub Director Peter Colman, said designing and building the Antarctic-bound ROV was an interesting challenge.

“The ROV was designed to be as agile as a modern aerial drone, with technology that’s known in the ROV industry as ‘six degrees of freedom', which means it can move in any direction whilst holding any altitude, much like a spacecraft,” Mr Colman said.

“Our use of 3D computer aided design and manufacturing were essential to the project, particularly given the very small size of the ROV and the timeframe we had to design and build it.”

Dr Johnstone said the ROV can also be modified to dive deeper and collect samples.

“It’s like a meccano set in that we can change the capabilities as we need.

“We can use 3D printing to produce customised brackets to mount different types of scientific instruments to meet future research needs.

“By changing the electronic housings, the ROV could also dive down to depths of 300 metres.”

This research is part of the baseline data gathering and long-term environmental monitoring for Australia’s proposal to build a paved runway near Davis research station, subject to environmental approvals (see previous story).

The data collected by the ROV will be included in the impact statements and extensive environmental assessment processes.

Eliza Grey
Australian Antarctic Division