Remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, are submersible robots that allow us to explore the ocean without actually being in the ocean. ROVs are connected to a ship through a series of long cables called a tether. This tether transmits operative commands from the surface vessel while the ROV sends back data, including live video, of its surroundings.
While ROVs continue to make new strides in technological development, they are by no means a new tool. First developed in the 1960s, ROVs were used by the U.S. Navy as a resource for national defense and underwater equipment recovery. By the 1980s, commercial companies used the robots to aid in the oil and gas industries. Now, ROVs are used across the globe for both ocean exploration and industrial surveillance, allowing ROVs to be respectively categorized as Science-Class or Working-Class vehicles.
ROVs range in size. Some are as small as a laptop computer. Others are as large as a small truck. Larger ROVs are very heavy and need other equipment (e.g., a winch and an A-frame or a crane) to launch and recover them.
ROVs typically consist of video cameras, which transmit real-time surveillance to scientists aboard the surface vessel; lights; sonar systems; and a buoyancy foam pack, which allows the vehicle to remain light and easy to maneuver when in the water. ROVs can use external sensors that are mounted on the vehicle to measure things like conductivity, temperature, and depth. ROVs may be built with a manipulator arm designed for collecting biological and geological samples, which are deposited into boxes along the sides of the ROVs. The movement of the ROV and its manipulator arms is guided by pilots on the surface vessel via joysticks and touchscreens on a “control box.”
Some ROVs are built with two bodies, such as NOAA Ocean Exploration’s vehicles Deep Discoverer and Seirios. Deep Discoverer travels and samples in the water column and across the ocean floor, and is tethered to its hovering companion ROV, Seirios, which absorbs the ship’s heave to keep Deep Discoverer stable. An advantage of a two-body system is that the hovering ROV acts as an extra light source and camera, giving the pilots, scientists, and viewers an expanded view of the ocean. However, two-body ROVs are more difficult to control and transport than their single-body counterparts.
ROVs provide scientists exceptional access to the deep ocean. The ability of ROVs to dive for extended periods makes them a versatile tool for achieving ocean exploration objectives, yet there are still significant technological advancements being made to ROVs. Brighter lights, increased data storage, and higher-quality cameras continue to be implemented in ROV updates to pave the way for a better-understood deep sea.