In 2001, Dr. Eric Schmidt became the CEO of Google, a position he held for eleven years. His position in the company has shifted over the last few years and he is currently Alphabet’s technical advisor. Through the course of his time with Google and Alphabet he transitioned the company from a small Silicon Valley startup to the technology powerhouse it is today. Along with him on this crazy ride has been his wife, whom he met in the late 1970s, Wendy. Wendy took on the responsibility of being the President of The Schmidt Family Foundation, a foundation dedicated to the advancement of renewable energies and the betterment of a sustainable earth. Seeing how vulnerable, yet critical to the survival of the earth, our oceans have become, Eric and Wendy established the Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI) in 2009.
The SOI is a private, non-profit foundation that focuses on oceanic research using the highest quality technology available. They state their mission as, “The world’s oceans understood through technological advancement, intelligent observation, and open sharing of information.” The SOI is able to do this aboard the R/V Falkor, a research vessel that has traveled around the world close to three times since it was launched in 2012. The Falkor was originally built in 1981 as a Fishery Protection Vessel. Today it is one of the leading aquatic research ships collaborating with scientists around the world. As Wendy said about the ship, “Sharing our laboratories, computing and communication facilities aboard R/V Falkor is the first step in creating a new kind of collaborative marine science community.” What makes the Falkor so unique is the state of the art equipment and laboratories found aboard her.
The Falkor has two of the most advanced research labs, one wet and one dry, to study the mysteries of the oceans. Both labs have everything needed to conduct in-depth research, and then share it with the scientific community. The ship is also equipped with all the necessary heavy duty machinery needed to conduct full scale research missions like hydro winches and over the side deployment cranes. These systems allow the researchers on board the Falkor to utilize the ships most impressive tools, an elite cache of drones used to collect data.
The Falkor currently houses aerial and submersible drones. The aerial drones they use range in size from a small off the shelf type model, to ones the size of a small blimp that can travel over 100 km at a time. These drones are used to take videos and still images of the surrounding areas, and collect atmospheric and surface data. The SOI has used several AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles) like the Sentry, Iver, and Sirius that can independently conduct underwater missions. They even had a chance to work with the hybrid underwater robotic vehicle Nereus before it was destroyed in 2014. The two drones that are currently gaining the most attention aboard the Falkor are their ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles). The 300m SAAB SeaEye Falcon is used mainly to collect video data in shallower depths. It has provided the SOI with unparalleled data on coral reef systems surrounding the globe. But it is the 4500 ROV SuBastian that recently was used in the discovery of species in the Ningaloo Canyons off western Australia.
The 6,500lb SuBastian looks more like something that would be found on a construction site. It has an unlimited dive time and can reach depths of 4,500 meters without causing any pollutants to be expelled in the water. It’s modular configuration supports a wide range of tools from sensors and cameras, to moveable arms that can collect data samples. A combination of synthetic foam made with glass micro-spheres gives the drone strength and buoyancy while five thrusters propel it. The SuBastian has a navigation system that allows it to be remotely operated while still adjusting to unforeseen obstacles with collision avoidance sensors.
The SuBastian is seemingly the ultimate deep sea explorer, which made it the ideal tool to be used by a team of scientists from the Western Australian Museum led by Dr. Nerida Wilson aboard the R/V Falkor. Over the month long expedition the SuBastian completed 20 dives and 181 hours of research, in the Indian Ocean. The data collected revealed a wide range of new species in the canyons. “We suspected these deep sea areas would be diverse but we have been blown away by the significance of what we have seen,” said Dr. Wilson. Some of these discoveries included communities of glass sponges, the first giant hydroids in Australia, and a 150-foot siphonophore, possibly the longest animal ever recorded on film.
The Falkor is still continuing is research missions as a dedicated year long program in Australia and the Pacific Ocean, despite the coronavirus. The ship is an isolated environment that observes all World Health Organization regulations. Much of the research being collected is still being shared live with the world so as to continue that efforts to educate the world. “There is so much we don’t know about the deep sea, and there are countless species never before seen,” said Wendy Schmidt. “Our planet is deeply interconnected–what happens in the deep sea impacts life on land–and vice versa. This research is vital to advance our understanding of that connection–and the importance of protecting these fragile ecosystems. The Ningaloo Canyons are just one of many vast underwater wonders we are about to discover that can help us better understand our planet.”