Thursday, 30 August 2012

Green across the board

On January 20 2011 when Professor Ed Hill, Executive Director NOC, issued a statement advising that Isis  had been involved in a serious accident, my heart, along with the hearts of many, sank like a stone. I have loved this ROV for over five years, since I first saw the most amazing footage, captured by Isis , of animals living in hydrothermal vent fields in the deep ocean.

After the accident, there was an agony of waiting to see whether funding could be found to enable the team to put the ROV back together. Finally, and with huge thanks to the Natural Environment Research Council, NOC’s funding body, the team was given the green light to rebuild.

I had the privilege of filming the ROV team painstakingly rebuild Isis  over a period of several months. Thanks to their skill and dedication, Isis  has risen back to life, like a phoenix from the ashes, reconstructed from a frame of gory, twisted metal to her former glory.

Isis is recovered to deck on the launch and recovery system (LARS)

The trials cruise allowed the National Marine Facilities Sea Systems team to test the vehicle thoroughly to ensure that she is fit to undertake her next science mission in November. I wish the ROV team every success in the months ahead. No doubt there will be other challenges to face, however, as this crisis has shown, NOC engineers and technicians will meet these challenges head on so that the UK marine science community can continue to learn more about the amazing science of our blue planet.

The ROV team:
L - R, Duncan Matthew, Allan Davies, Will Handley, Russ Locke, Dave Turner, Andy Webb, James Cooper.
Jackie Pearson (in the middle - not Chris as on the helmet) was the cruise blogger.

Rebuild Time Lapse

A time lapse film was created to show the process of the rebuild of the ROV Isis.   A camera, set up in the Deep Platforms Hangar, recorded images every 10 minutes of each working day.   Over 3900 photographs were taken between February and July 2012 - not all were used in this film, the time lapse sequence of which lasts just over six and a half minutes. The film has a cool sound track courtesy of E-Z Rollers - thanks guys!

Day 10 - TOBI2 recovered

Following a second TOBI2 launch yesterday and overnight tow, the team prepared to recover the vehicle this morning. The recovery was smooth despite a slightly ‘lumpy’ sea and the team is pleased with the data that the vehicle has collected.

Lifting the depressor weight

A perfect recovery for TOBI2

The team also worked on the sea gliders today. Sea gliders are ‘buoyancy driven vehicles’, and they differ from most airborne gliders because they need an engine as rising ocean currents are generally too weak to lift them to the surface. Sea gliders are an effective tool for gathering data and the team can direct where they travel over a two-way satellite communications (Iridium) link. Gliders use little energy so are economical to operate.

P.I. Robin Plumley, Steve Smith and Mark Maltby

Coprolite almost ready to go!

The NOC glider called Coprolite is being prepared for launch and the team is also preparing to recover glider ‘194’ and Bellamite. All three were deployed in June 2012 from the RRS Discovery;  Coprolite had to be recovered early. The gliders are part of the FASTNEt project which aims to quantify the exchange of water between the shallow shelf seas and the deep ocean.

Coprolite is launched!

The gliders have been operating over or close to the steep continental slope that separates shallow and deep water regions. The team are keen to understand how the exchange processes vary as the seasons change. When Coprolite is recovered at the end of September two Seagliders from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) will take over and continue the measurements until January next year. The team we have a set of measurements from early summer all the way through to winter.

The FASTNEt project: ttp://

Day 9 - Slurp gun!

Another dive for Isis  today with some more push cores collected for our science team. The vehicle descended to 1400m and the ROV team refreshed their skills in using the ‘slurp gun’ – essentially a hose attached to Isis  that is a bit like a vacuum cleaner, only it sucks up small samples from the sea bed. Once collected, the engineer deposits the sample in a storage box on the tray of the ROV.

The slurp gun is used for collecting small biological samples

Day 7 - Isis goes from strength to strength

With the first Isis  dive completed successfully, the next objective was to test the vehicle at deeper depth. Preparing the ROV to dive is a lengthy process as there are multiple pre-dive checks and activities to complete. When the vehicle is ready to be deployed, the ROV team are in position either in the control van or on deck and they communicate between each other and the Bridge by radio.

Once cleared for launch, Isis  is raised up by the LARS (Launch and Recovery System) and manoeuvred out over the ocean. She is attached to the ship by 10,000 m of cable and it is through this cable that the ROV team transmit instructions and power to the vehicle.

Andy, Allan, Dave and James at the winch control

On Monday, Isis  descended to 1600 m and once near the sea bed, the team took the opportunity to refresh their skills in ‘push coring’. Push coring is a technique ROV pilots use to collect samples of sediment. Whilst the team’s pilot maintains the vehicle in a steady position, the engineer operates the vehicle’s manipulator claw arm to retrieve a cylinder from a tray on the vehicle. The cylinder is then pushed firmly into the sea bed.

The engineer operates manipulator arms to retrieve samples from the sea bed.

The engineer retrieves the core once it is full of sediment and returns it to the tray. This is no easy task as the engineer is looking at flat, two dimensional screens but must think in three dimensions to operate the arm. With great efficiency, the team collected a full tray of cores and then prepared the vehicle to ascend to the surface.

On board is Lucy Woodall, a scientist from the Natural History Museum who is researching the effects of environmental factors such as depth and habitat and anthropogenic factors such as fishing on marine nematode communities; also on board is NOC scientist Veerle Huvenne who is undertaking research on marine habitat mapping and sediment dynamics. As soon as Isis  was safely back on deck, Lucy and Veerle set to work retrieving the cores and preserving them in readiness for their analysis back at base.

Veerle Huvenne and Lucy Woodall

Day 6 - TOBI2 launch

Today the weather was perfect for the test dive of TOBI2. TOBI stands for Towed Ocean Bottom Instrument; this vehicle is a deep-towed 30kHz sidescan sonar system develop at NOC, designed to acoustically image the deep ocean floor.

Cruise P.I. Robin Plumley (centre)

Used in depths between 200 m and 6000 m, the vehicle is fitted with sidescan, profiler sonars, magnetometer, CTD instruments, vehicle orientation and attitude sensors, fibre-optic telemetry, Inverted Ultra Short Baseline Navigation (iUSBL), a fibre-optic gyroscope, a bathymetric phased array and a built-in self test and health check system.

Duncan Matthew gives the TOBI2 'tool box' talk

A 600 kg depressor weight linked to TOBI2 helps the vehicle maintain depth, as much of its bulk is syntactic foam, a buoyant material used widely in oceanographic technology. The depressor weight has a box of electro-optical connections which enable the deployed vehicle to maintain communications with the ship. There were some problems with this initially which the team quickly rectified and the launch was given the green light. Duncan Matthew gave the team the ‘tool box’ talk and once the team had completed final checks, TOBI2 was deployed over the rear deck of the James Cook  and recovered several hours later.

TOBI2 is recovered onto the rear deck

TOBI vehicles are used for exploring mid ocean ridges, monitoring gas hydrates and slope stability of the continental shelf, undertaking environmental impact studies and monitoring the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

James, Dave and Allan working on the depressor weight

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Day 5 - Isis returns to the deep!

Today was a big day for the ROV team as they prepared to launch Isis  for the first open sea trial since the accident in January 2011. Early afternoon, the team went through final pre-dive checks. The atmosphere on deck and in the Isis  Control Van was one of tension and excitement as the culmination of months of work came to a head.

Allan, Andy and Russ 
Dave Turner gives the 'tool box' talk
Dave Turner gathered together the ROV team and ship's crew for a ‘tool- box’ talk – this is carried out before deployments. The team leader runs through the launch and recovery process, checking that everyone is aware of their responsibilities.

Moments from descending into the deep...
With the team good to go, Dave switched on the winch for launch. Steadily, Isis  was lifted off the deck and I felt an immense sense of pride in all who have worked so hard for this moment. She was manoeuvred carefully over the ocean, her iconic red and yellow livery standing out against the backdrop of an overcast rainy sky. We watched in anticipation as she hovered momentarily over the sea then descended rapidly into the deep.

James Cooper in the Control Van
In the dark of the Control Van, the team watched multiple screens linked to cameras on the robot which captured footage of shoals of brilliant silver fish darting into view as Isis  descended down to 500 m. Today’s trial enabled the team to complete testing and checks as they prepare Isis  for her next science cruise. James Cooper tested the predator manipulator arms, working them through their range of movement. We watched on the screens, each claw opening and closing, the arms moving up and down, to the side and back.

The team continued to check and test the functionality of the vehicle, her computer systems and cameras. Eventually, the decision was made to bring Isis  back to the surface as some tweaks were needed and daylight hours were beginning to fade. Although the winch proved problematic during recovery, eventually Isis  was restored on deck and lashed down for the night.

Isis is recovered to deck on the launch and recovery system
Today was a triumph for Deep Platforms Group and all who have contributed to this project. This is just the beginning of the new phase in the role of this amazing robot. Isis  is back and ready to take on the deep once again!

The first dive video of the newly rebuilt Isis  ROV

Friday, 17 August 2012

Day 4 - Preparing to dive

Today the RRS James Cook  arrived on station, 200 nautical miles SW of Land's End and switched on the Dynamic Positioning (DP) system which enables the ship to remain very stable whilst our teams deploy equipment, for example, the Isis  ROV.

Part of the mission for today involved deploying a Sound Velocity Probe on a vertical wire in a water depth of approximately 1500m. This probe observes the speed of sound at different depths as it is lowered in the water. In order to make use of the acoustic navigation and seabed mapping sensors onboard James Cook, the speed of sound in water must be known.

Acoustic beacon
Weather conditions remained adverse for deploying the ROV so the decision was made to reposition to deeper water in approximately 4000m to complete the calibration of the Cassius USBL. This involves deploying an acoustic beacon to the seabed and manoeuvring the ship around the beacon whilst collecting acoustic range, ship position and ship orientation data in order to calibrate the USBL positioning system. The calibration started at 1800 this evening and is expected to last through to 0800 tomorrow morning.

Jon Martin from Sonardyne who is working on the USBL calibration is here to support TOBI2, a deep towed body used for side-scan sonar. Jon’s responsibility is to position TOBI2 and ensure that the Sonardyne systems are working correctly. Usually, when positioning a subsea vehicle (such as a ROV) from the surface, he would use a vessel mounted USBL system but because TOBI2 is so deep and a long distance behind and the vessel, Jon is using a system called iUSBL which entails putting the USBL transceiver on TOBI2 itself. This approach is not used often so more challenging. The TOBI2 launch is set for Sunday.

Elsewhere on deck, the ROV team continued working in the control van, calibrating the manipulator claw arms on Isis  and checking the multiple control and computer systems. The vehicle was switched on towards the end of the afternoon so that the predator manipulator claw arms could be tested. All is ready now for the first test dive of Isis  in the open ocean tomorrow.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Day 3 - Life in a washing machine

Stormy seas continue. To battle the waves, the James Cook’s speed has diminished to just a few knots. The team is working well though, despite the effects of sea sickness. A colleague commented that he had had more sick-sickness pills in the last two days than in seven years of research cruises!

The good news is that we are steaming towards the first ROV test dive site and once on station, conditions will improve dramatically. A pod of common dolphin buzzed the ship in the early evening. Common dolphin are easy to identify by their hour-glass shaped markings, coloured creamy white, on their flanks. These little guys, around 1.5 – 2 m long, were having a ‘whale of a time’ riding the frothy white waters on the starboard side of the James Cook.

Common dolphin (Neil Foulks)

At 2.25am the cruise blogger filmed these playful dolphins
just outside the porthole of her cabin.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Day 2 - Fifty shades of blue

An uncomfortable day sailing! The weather worsened during the night as we caught up with the tail end of a hurricane with wind speeds of 40 knots. Under these conditions, described as ‘lumpy-bumpy’ by Captain John Leask, normal everyday tasks become challenges, for example, getting from one side of a room to the other, putting on shoes, having a shower... it is times like these that one appreciates the hand rails along all the corridors and up the stairs ways of the James Cook. It is impossible to avoid walking in a left to right then right to left motion, gripping walls, rails and furniture en route. The sea looks amazing though, frothy white and every shade of blue. Watching it helps fight the sea sickness although this doesn’t work for everyone! There weren’t many takers for the delicious looking chocolate gateaux last night. It has been invaluable, if uncomfortable, for the cruise blogger to learn about what our teams must face out at sea.

The clip below was filmed on the rear deck by the cruise blogger who was feeling unwell!

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Day 1 - The Isis ROV trials begin

Tuesday 14 August 2012 - the Isis ROV trials begin 

Cruise JC076T is what we refer to as a trials cruise and in this case, represents an opportunity for our Deep Platforms Group to trial a piece of equipment called Isis. Isis  is a Remotely Operated Vehicle or ROV that we use to enable marine science teams to study life in the deepest and most inhospitable places on the Planet, the mid-ocean ridges. Mid-ocean ridges are areas where new sea floor is generated; they resemble long mountain chains under the sea and require Isis  to descend over 2500 m to reach them. Our scientists are interested in mid-ocean ridges because, despite the fact that these areas are beyond the reach of the energy from the Sun, life is still able to exist there. Fantastic species of vent worms, shrimps and crabs have been discovered at the sites of mid-ocean ridges, thanks to the capability of Isis  and her skilled team of engineers, technicians and scientists.

Isis  is based at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and maintained by the National Marine Facilities Sea Systems Deep Platforms Group. Unfortunately, during a deployment in the Southern Ocean in January 2011, Isis  was damaged badly in an accident involving the ship’s propeller so for the last 6 months, Deep Platforms Group have been re-building the ROV, a task that was completed at the end of July 2012. Although Isis  is capable of working to depths of 6500m, she is configured only for 2500m on this trial.

Cruise JC076T started in the dock at Southampton during the early evening of Monday 13 August when the ROV team deployed Isis  successfully in a ‘wet test’ for the first time since the accident on January 19 2011.

The next morning, against a backdrop of sunshine and a blue sky, the RRS James Cook  set sail for the Porcupine Abyssal Plain in the mid-east Atlantic. As we sailed past Calshot, we watched the Harbour Master from ABP Southampton collect the pilot once the James Cook  was beyond Calshot Spit. This is Cowes week so there were dozens of yachts scattered about, requiring the James Cook  to sound her horn occasionally, to warn of our approach.

During the first day of the Trials Cruise, the James Cook  undertook some ‘handbrake turns’ to test the autopilot system. Turning the vessel at speeds of up to 11 knots, she turned neatly and smoothly, demonstrating a successful test!

After securing the various pieces of kit, including Isis  firmly to the deck, the ROV team continued in their preparations for the first trial dives at sea.

The key objectives for cruise JC076T:
  • Commission and train deck officers in new adaptive autopilot unit
  • Test the operation and functionality of the ROV Isis  following a substantial rebuild
  • Finalise and confirm procedures for the safe and effective operation of the ROV Isis
  • Test the operation and functionality of TOBI2 in series of medium and deep dives
  • Calibrate the USBL transducer
  • Launch a NOC Seaglider (Coprolite)
  • Undertake familiarisation and knowledge of navigation and DP systems and contingency actions in the event of failure
  • Confirm knowledge and competence of marine staff in emergency procedures through auditing.