A number of small technical advances in devising undersea robots have combined to make vast reaches of the ocean floor accessible to exploration for the first time. The gains have enabled salvagers to locate and recover a fascinating array of material and treasure from sunken ships, planes, missiles, submarines and other artifacts lost at sea over the ages.
Experts say further strides in fabricating remote-controlled robots and in developing sensors for locating undersea objects promise to make the 1990's a new age of discovery for part of the earth's surface that has long been out of reach, protected by crushing pressures and inky darkness.
"It's going to be the wild West all over again, like the gold rush days," said Graham S. Hawkes, founder of Deep Ocean Engineering Inc. of San Leandro, Calif., a robot manufacturing company.
Some experts deplore the stampede to scavenge fortunes out of the ocean's depths, saying scientific riches are being put at risk. Indeed, booty hunters are said to be deploying deep-sea robots clandestinely at times to avoid controversy and tax collectors.
Salvors, scientists and industry engineers routinely use complex robots that have computer "brains," lights, television cameras, sonar-mapping systems, manipulator arms and long tethers. This equipment enables a remote operator, sometimes miles away, to brave the numerous hazards of the ocean's floor in complete safety. Even simple robots with only lights and cameras have advanced the art of finding objects, which had been one of the most difficult steps in deep-sea recovery.
Experts say the rise of undersea robots is a case study in technical advance. Many small innovations came together to make a breakthrough much larger than the sum of its parts, they say.
Optical fibers send huge amounts data back and forth to robots over thin lines strengthened with Kevlar, a lightweight polymer of steel-like strength. Titanium, a strong, light metal resistant to salt water corrosion, keeps parts from breaking down. Most important, experts say, tiny computer circuits orchestrate the action many fathoms under the ocean's surface.
Crude robots were first used in the early 1960's, almost exclusively by the military. Now industry experts say as many as a thousand of the devices are at work in the world's waters, mostly in commercial ventures. The robots are going deeper, lifting heavier loads and exploring more promising sites than ever before.
One such site is the resting place of the Central America, a vessel that sank in a hurricane in 1857 off the coast of South Carolina with at least three tons of California gold. The ship lies in waters nearly 8,000 feet deep, a crushing depth far beyond the reach of divers.
But the wreck is now being salvaged by Nemo, a six-ton robot with arms so versatile that they can pick up delicate wine glasses, small coins or the ship's heavy bell. The gold alone is said to be worth about $450 million.
"We look at shipwrecks as the first step into a whole universe of undersea discoveries, including mineral and cultural resources," said Barry Schatz, a director of the Columbus America Discovery Group of Columbus, Ohio, which is salvaging the ship. "This is a new age. It's our last foray, geographically, on earth."
In general, experts say, undersea robots can perform tasks in deep and hazardous waters considered too dangerous for divers or submarines.
"It's like space," said Bruce Crawford, president of Perry Technologies , a robot maker in Riviera Beach, Fla. "You can send man but there's risk and expense. With a robot, if a cable breaks, you don't lose somebody. Because of robots, all of the ocean floor is becoming accessible."
Industry experts say the technology has been a boon for the military, which has a range of interests in recovering objects lost at sea, including those belonging to other governments.
"Lots of our technology gets used by the Navy," said Tyler Schilling, president of Schilling Development Inc. of Davis, Calif., which makes arms for undersea robots. "A lot of what they do is salvage, recovering things they've lost or somebody else has lost."
Objects of military interest are said to include sunken Soviet submarines, missiles, warheads and the flight recorder of the Korean Airlines jetliner shot down by a Soviet fighter in 1983. Despite the ability of undersea recovery systems, the plane's "black box" with recordings of its flight data was apparently never recovered by either the Soviet or American search fleets.
Dr. Dana R. Yoerger, a robotics specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, said the field of undersea robots was rapidly evolving as the devices became heavily computerized and did more work on their own, at times "better than people."
Some experts, especially archeologists, say the technical strides are a mixed blessing that raise thorny legal and ethical questions.
"We're concerned about the potential this rapidly expanding technology has for the disruption and depredation of historic shipwreck sites," said Michael Naab, director of maritime preservation for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington. "Most archeologists can't afford that kind of equipment."
Today, the robots deployed by treasure hunters are working on at least two historic wrecks in deep waters off Florida, one in about 1,300 feet of water, the other at 1,500 feet. Roger Smith, a marine archeologist with the state Division of Historical Resources, said both were outside the state's three-mile jurisdictional limit.
"We're interested in the survey, interpretation and preservation of shipwrecks," he said, adding that "a lot of science can potentially be done" at such sites with robots.
Before the robotic onslaught, ocean recovery was often limited to shallow water. Mel Fisher's 1985 discovery of the Spanish ship Nuestra Senora de la Atocha yielded more than $80 million in treasure just 55 feet down in Florida water, its wreckage widely scattered. One compensation of deep wrecks is that they are fewer and sometimes easier to find. In addition, many have survived largely intact by escaping the pounding and churning that hurricanes inflict on shallower sites.
The field of undersea robotics was pioneered by the Navy in the early 1960's, chiefly at the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego. The center's first experimental robot was equipped with a television camera, a still camera, a sonar system and various manipulators and grabbers. By 1965 it was able to retrieve sunken ordnance from depths of 800 feet. By 1966, the robot swam into the limelight when it was used to recover a hydrogen bomb that had been accidentally dropped into 2,310 feet of water off Spain.
Thomas J. LaPuzza, a spokesman for the San Diego center, said the robotics field has grown so large that today there are at least 600 undersea vehicles that could recover that bomb. The center, he said, had developed about 20 different robots over the decades, from a 40-pound model that carries only a television camera, to advanced versions that can drill, weld and cut cables.
Robert L. Wernli, a program official at the center, said about 98 percent of the ocean floor was now accessible. "It's phenomenal," he said, adding that in terms of seizing the opportunity, "we're just barely breaking the surface." The Navy, Mr. Wernli said, long ago made a conscious decision to try to assist the field by transferring its robotic technology to American industry.
Robot evolution got its biggest boost in the 1970's when oil prices shot up and companies around the world raced to exploit undersea oil fields. The large market for machines that could remotely weld pipes, cut metal, tighten bolts and turn valves caused a surge in robot capabilities, Mr. Wernli said. "Before that, manipulator arms weren't strong enough or reliable enough," he said.
Another result of the oil boom was a dramatic drop in the price of robots. In the 1960's they were exotic, one-of-a-kind devices that cost tens of millions of dollars. By the 1980's they had become standard products costing as little as hundreds of thousands of dollars, even as their powers improved.
Craig T. Mullen, president of the Eastport International Corporation, a robot and salvage firm in Upper Marlboro, Md., said the company's Gemini robot had two robotic arms, each with seven axes of movement. That is more than most industrial robots, but fewer than the human arm, which has a remarkable 27 axes of movement. The Gemini is also equipped with two sonars; a Kevlar-armored, fiber-optic cable, and an 80-horsepower motor.
In 1988, Mr. Mullen said, the robot picked up 10 tons of wreckage from a Boeing 747 that fell into 15,000 feet of water off Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. He said South African Airways rebuilt a quarter of the jet to try to find out why the pilot lost control after a fire. Everyone aboard was lost. They determined that the noxious fumes from the fire in the rear cargo hold circulated into the cockpit, Mr. Mullen said.
In 1983, he said, his company used robots to recover about 10 tons of the Air India jet that blew up off the coast of Ireland and sank in 6,700 feet of water. Investigators wanted to look for traces of a terrorist bomb.
Jim McFarlane, president of International Submarine Engineering Ltd., a robot concern in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, said a driving force in the evolution of robots was the increasing power of small computers. "It's mainly high-density electronics that make it possible to control something remotely," he said. "It's a computer down there."
In 1986, he said, one of his company's robots recovered a Handley-Page-Hampden bomber that was lost off British Columbia in 1942. "We got the whole thing by putting nylon slings around it and lifting," he said. "It's being restored."
Dr. Yoerger of Woods Hole said a big advance in the field was the use of fiber optics, thin strands of glass that can transmit prodigious quantities of data on laser-generated light waves. "Fiber optics are used for everything but power -- all command and control for the vehicle, all sonar, all video," he said.
A principal user of deep-sea robots is Dr. Robert D. Ballard, a Woods Hole scientist who led the expedition that in 1985 located the Titanic nearly two and a half miles down. Dr. Ballard, who opposes the salvage of historic wrecks, only took pictures. But in 1987 a French team used robots to recover more than 300 artifacts from the wreck, including china, a chandelier, a small safe and a leather bag containing jewelry.
In 1989, Dr. Ballard used an ocean-crawling robot to find the Nazi battleship Bismarck in more than 15,000 feet of water off the French coast, providing evidence suggesting that the ship was scuttled rather than sunk by British bombardment.
Experts say the robots likely to appear in the near future will be more highly computerized and may eventually be able to operate indepentently of cables linking them to their mother ship. Such robots, either entirely independent or controlled by sound waves, can escape the havoc that ocean currents wreak on long cables. Cables are also expensive, costing up to $1 million, said Mr. Mullen of Eastport International.
Autonomy also helps a robot in the process that is often the most difficult step of a recovery operation: locating a target on the ocean bottom. "There's going to be an explosion in autonomous vehicles," said Mr. Mullen.
Deam Given, editor and publisher of Subnotes, an industry journal based in San Diego, said the Soviet Union had achieved the world's first autonomous robots, the MT-88 and MT-89. The Soviets are even trying to sell these advanced machines in the West.
"They're controlled acoustically," Mr. Given said. "This is strictly for search and survey. They've used them to survey the two sunken Soviet subs, one in the Atlantic and one near Norway. It's very sophisticated reconnaissance, scooting and searching, using sonar and TV and magnetometers." Magnetometers are devices that detect metallic objects by measuring distortions in the earth's magnetic field.
"This is what they're showing us; who knows what they've got secret," Mr. Given said. He added that the robots were first made public last year, at an asking price of about $5 million.
Mr. Hawkes of Deep Ocean Engineering said his company, like many others in the United States, was focusing on new sensor technologies.
"There's a tremendous amount of interesting material lost on the bottom of the ocean since the beginning of commerce," he said. "Anything that was lost in deep water might as well have been lost on the moon, until the last few years. We see things changing dramatically."