Science

At the bottom of the Mediterranean, “BathyBot” will track the mysteries of the “dark ocean”

Posted on: 01/14/2022 – 20:34Modified on: 01/14/2022 – 20:32

The Seyne-sur-Mer (AFP) – The crane gently lowers the small white and yellow crawler-mounted “rover” to the bottom of a test pond at the Ifremer center in La Seyne-sur-Mer (Var).

On their screens, engineers and scientists check out the cameras of the BathyBot, soon to be the world’s first mobile underwater vehicle permanently installed at a depth of 2,500 meters, to unravel the mysteries of the abyss.

“We know less about the depths of the ocean than about the Moon”, explains Christian Tamburini, from the CNRS, a researcher at the Mediterranean Institute of Oceanology. “We don’t know what’s going on there, or the organisms that live there.”

It must be said that the environment is hostile. The average depth of the oceans, which cover 70% of the earth’s surface, is 3,800 meters. From 180 meters there is darkness. And at 1,000 meters, it’s total darkness, “the dark ocean.”

As a result, most scientific research is done in the layers near the surface, where life is concentrated.

But at a time of climate crisis, it is vital to understand the changes that warming is causing in the oceans and how it will affect these natural carbon sinks, which sequester almost a third of the CO2 emitted by humans.

Thanks in particular to BathyBot, “we will be able to study what is produced on the surface and what is happening at the bottom”, enthuses Christian Tamburini.

Another main goal is to understand the biodiversity of the abyss, a little-known reservoir of life even as scientists believe the “sixth mass extinction” has begun.

See in the dark

The CNRS, as part of a European project, and in collaboration with the public institution Ifremer, will deploy, 40 kilometers off the coast of Toulon, the deepest permanent observation platform in the world. There is only one other, Canadian, less than 800 meters away “alone”.

The French project took advantage of the existence in the area of ​​an “underwater telescope” that hunts cosmic particles. And already served by a permanent electricity and data cable, on which they will be grafted.

This new observatory will be deployed from January 31 to February 14 by the Pourquoi Pas, flagship of the French oceanographic fleet, with the submarine Nautile.

And therefore it will have as an emblematic figure, endowed with a Twitter account @bathybot to popularize its findings, the little “rover”. One meter twenty long by one wide and 90 centimeters high.

It bears only a distant resemblance to its space exploration cousins: instead of solar panels, it’s powered by a cable, a “tether” that also collects its data, but limits its range to 50 meters, traveling very slowly.

A distance that can then be increased, with the hope that one day it can even be autonomous. On the condition that you solve your orientation difficulties, because there is no GPS within 2,500 meters! One possibility would be to plant stakes with QR codes that tell you where you are.

It will be accompanied by static equipment lowered at the same time: a radiometer (radioactivity), a biocamera to capture in particular bioluminescence phenomena, a seismograph and the BathyReef, a “bio-inspired” artificial reef.

The Bathybot underwater robot on January 13, 2022 before a test session off Toulon Nicholas TUCAT AFP

This concrete structure, just over 4 meters long and 2.5 meters wide, gently rises up to 1.5 meters high. It will give the BathyBot a point to climb to in order to expand its field of vision.

Its semi-open structure, with numerous cracks, will allow life forms to settle there and study the reactions of others to this obstacle.

power strip

Another essential part of the device, the “scientific junction box”. A kind of (big) intelligent power strip that supplies electricity, connects at high speed and monitors all the instruments of the station.

“We will be able to connect equipment to the bottom of the water, remove it, all controllable from land,” explains Jan Opderbecke, head of the Submarine Systems unit of the Ifremer fleet.

BathyBot will be reassembled every two years and can then receive new tools, for example to enable “micro-sampling” in the sedimentary soil on which it will evolve.

The expected useful life is at least five to ten years. Something to shed some light on the “dark ocean”.

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