August 12, 2010
Going Deep: Pioneering Deep-sea Research Helmed by Wentworth Alumni
Talk about high-pressure jobs: Sean Kelley, BEET '04, often spends his workday with three miles of seawater over his head.
Kelley is the youngest person ever to pilot Alvin, the U.S. Navy–owned Deep Submergence Vehicle (DSV) famous for surveying the wreck of RMS Titanic in 1986. Although colleagues refer to him as “the kid,” Kelley cannot stand up straight in Alvin’s cramped personnel sphere any better than they can. But the inconveniences of a six-foot-diameter “office” with two inches of titanium for walls are more than offset by the unique privilege of exploring the mysteries of the ocean floor.
The Titanic dives may be foremost in the public mind, but Alvin’s impressive credits also include exploring the first known hydrothermal vent sites in the 1970s and locating a lost hydrogen bomb in the Mediterranean Sea in 1966. Named for Allyn Vine, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) engineer and geophysicist, Alvin has safely made 4,600-plus dives with more than 2,500 researchers since its construction in 1964. It is the world’s oldest research submersible, yet it has remained state-of-the-art thanks to updates and constant maintenance.
As Alvin flirts with the half-century mark, however, it is in the process of being more or less replaced, although some of its parts are expected to live on in the next DSV. At the helm of this twophase project is an old friend of Alvin’s, former pilot Anthony Tarantino, EEC ’93. The depth capacity of the new DSV will be 6,500 meters—more than four miles. While Alvin could reach around two-thirds of the ocean floor, its successor will be able to explore 99 percent of it. Needless to say, the science community, which has been the driving force behind the upgrade, is pretty excited. As are Kelley and Tarantino.
Life with Alvin
Both Kelley’s father, Alan Kelley, AT ’65, and grandfather, John Palmer, C&B ’25, M&P ’26, attendedWentworth, and Kelley grew up immersed in electronics. He does not consider himself adventurous and never imagined that he would end up immersed, literally, in the ocean. Or that rather than being surrounded by cars on his way to work, he might be surrounded by hundreds of squid (on a dive off Santa Barbara; they were attracted to Alvin’s lights).
In fact, neither Kelley nor Tarantino had ever so much as set foot on a boat before becoming Alvin technicians, and eventually pilots. Kelley, along with his colleagues, spends months at a time aboard Atlantis, the Alvin support vessel. Not an easy life, but a satisfying one. “Driving the sub is awesome,” says Kelley. “When you know you can take people down there, be safe, and do great work, it makes it so enjoyable.”
The night before each 6- to 10-hour dive, the pilot and the two accompanying researchers meet to discuss their objectives and what samples need to be collected. In addition, the researchers are taught how to surface the sub should something happen to the pilot. “The funny part,” says Kelley, “is that the pilots actually have a better eye for what [the researchers] are looking for, as we are the ones down there most of the time. Because of battery life, you only get five hours on the bottom, so you don’t want to waste time searching.”
Finding what the scientists are looking for—even finding the actual dive site—can be difficult: light is lost around 200 meters and currents carry the sub off course. “There is no GPS in the ocean saying ‘you are here,’” says Kelley. “You really have to make sure that the acoustic navigation you are getting is right. That is the main focus on the way down.” Once at the seafloor, the pilot gets to work with the robotic arms, one at port and one at starboard, and collects such specimens as rocks, worms, mud, and even water.
All samples—up to 250 pounds of them—are placed in a basket attached to the front of the sub. Pilots have to navigate with the basket in mind, as it can get caught in the mud and make Alvin nose-dive or crash. “Alvin flies just like a helicopter,” says Kelley. “As it is extremely massive, you have to wait before it starts to go. If you apply full thrust and reach maximum velocity, you will go fast enough that you can’t stop in time. One good thing to remember is that you can always go up.” The words of a man who knows how to keep his cool.
Kelley’s calm persona is a real asset on Alvin, because at three miles down you have to expect the unexpected. On one dive, while ascending a 20-meter-tall hydrothermal vent—vents are often referred to as underwater volcanoes, chimneys, or black smokers and can grow to be 180 feet tall— Alvin’s light bar hit the spire’s overhang. “If it broke off and fell on me, that would probably be bad,” says Kelley, “but we hit it and bounced down. It is not a big deal, when you think about it.”
The new Alvin may be easier to fly: an advanced propulsion control system will allow the pilot to completely automate the sub’s movements. It is a huge step. “If the scientists want to image a field, the success of that task relies heavily on just how well the pilot can control the vehicle,” Tarantino explains. “With the new system, anyone could fly and get quality data.” This new capacity raised the question of just how much control should be given over to the computer. “We decided that we don’t want to leave all of it up to the machine,” Tarantino says. “We still think it’s necessary for the operator to stay in the feedback loop, especially when you have the safety of two other people, the researchers, in your hands.”
Onward and Downward
Phase one of the upgrade, now underway, focuses on the technically challenging 11,000-pound personnel sphere. Tarantino sits in a mock-up of the sphere and points out the new features. It’s a foot wider, and the titanium walls have been expanded to three inches to withstand greater pressures. Two additional forward-facing viewports, for a total of five, will enable the pilot and researchers to view the sampling area simultaneously. In the current design there is only one forward facing window, which is used by the pilot. If an observer needs to see the sampling area they have to swap seats, which wastes valuable dive time. This phase will also bring an enhanced command and control system, a stronger sample basket, better lighting, high definition video systems, and new syntactic foam capable of providing buoyancy at pressures experienced at 6,500 meters of seawater. All in all, a bigger, better Alvin. It will be in operation sometime in early 2012. However, only after phase two’s further upgrades and additions, tentatively scheduled for 2015, will the next-generation Alvin be capable of reaching that 6,500-meter goal.
Projects of this caliber are typically outsourced, but WHOI engineers are designing and constructing the new sub. WHOI is organized in such a way that there is not a large group of dedicated personnel assigned to the project, so tracking down the necessary resources is among the multitude of challenges keeping Tarantino busy these days. He does not complain, though. He would not miss out on this project for the world
“I am very interested in the technology,” he says, “but, because I was a pilot, I am also emotionally invested in the project.” Tarantino is hoping that phase-one testing will start in December 2011, and that soon after, Kelley will be steering the world’s most advanced research sub to new discoveries.
- Dennis Nealon