At the bottom of the Mediterranean, ‘BathyBot’ will hunt down the mysteries of the ‘dark ocean’

Posted on Friday, January 14, 2022 at 8:32 pm

The crane gently lowers the small white and yellow ‘rover’ mounted on the larvae to the bottom of the test tank at the Evermer Center in La Seine-sur-Mer (Var).

On their screens, engineers and scientists check the operation of BathyBot cameras, which will soon be the world’s first permanently mounted underwater vehicle at 2,500 metres, to unravel the mysteries of the abyss.

“We know less about the deep ocean than the moon,” explains CNRS’s Christian Tamborini, a researcher at the Mediterranean Institute of Oceanography. “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 covering 70% of the Earth’s surface is 3800 metres. From 180 meters there is darkness. And at an altitude of 1,000 meters there is complete darkness, the “dark ocean”.

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

But in a time of climate crisis, it is essential to understand the changes that warming oceans are causing and how they will affect natural carbon sinks, which sequester nearly a third of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans.

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

Another primary goal is to understand the biodiversity of the Abyss, a poorly understood reservoir of life, even as scientists believe the “sixth mass extinction” has begun.

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– Seeing in the dark –

Thus, the National Center for Scientific Research, as part of a European project, and in cooperation with the public institution Ifremer, will deploy 40 kilometers from the coast of Toulon, the deepest permanent observation platform in the world. There is only one other person, a Canadian, at an altitude of “only” less than 800 meters.

The French project took advantage of the presence of an “underwater telescope” in the region that hunts cosmic particles. It is already served by a permanent cable for power and data to be grafted onto it.

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

He will therefore have as an avatar, equipped with a Twitter account @bathybot to publish his discoveries, the little “rover”. One meter long, one meter wide, and 90 centimeters high.

It bears only a distant resemblance to its space-exploration cousins: instead of solar panels they are powered by a cable, a “leash” that also collects its data, but limits its range to 50 metres. It travels very slowly.

A distance that can be increased later, with the hope that one day it will be independent. Provided you solve your guidance difficulties, because there is no GPS below 2500m! One possibility would be to implant stakes with QR codes that tell him where he is.

It will be accompanied by fixed equipment that will be lowered at the same time: a radiometer (radioactivity), a bio-camera for capturing bioluminescence phenomena in particular, a seismograph, and an artificial “Pathereef” reef.

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This concrete structure, just over 4 meters long and 2.5 meters wide, rises gently to a height of 1.5 meters. It will give BathyBot a point to climb on to expand her field of vision.

Its semi-open structure, with many slits, will allow life forms to attach to it, studying the reactions of others to this obstacle.

– Energy sector –

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

“We will be able to connect equipment to the water floor and remove it, all of which can be controlled from land,” explains Jan Obderbeek, head of the subsea systems unit for the Ifremer fleet.

BathyBot will be reassembled every two years after which it will be able to receive new tools, for example to allow for “micro-drilling” in the sediment soil on which it will develop.

The expected service life is at least five to ten years. Something to shed some light on the Dark Ocean.

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