In recent years, it has become clear that special purpose, unmanned submersible vehicles can augment or replace manned submersibles. There are two basic types of unmanned submersibles. The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) is controlled from the surface by a tether, or cable, which is used to transmit power to the vehicle and serve as the medium through which the video signal and other sensor data are transmitted to the surface. The untethered ROV, more generally called an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) or an unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV), eliminates the cable and carries its own power. Because of the drastically reduced bandwidth and transmission delays inherent in tetherless underwater communications, these vehicles roam freely using onboard computers to run preset missions. Transmission of instructions to, and video information from, the vehicle is accomplished by means of an acoustic communication link. Some manned submersibles are equipped to carry ROVs to allow exploration of areas too small or dangerous for direct observation by the submersibles themselves.
Submersibles are being used in an increasing number of applications. In addition to salvage and rescue missions, submersibles are used for laying pipelines underwater, for work on offshore oil drilling platforms and wellheads, and for seafloor mapping, underwater surveys, and tunnel and aqueduct inspections. Small AUVs, sometimes called drones, are used by the military and intelligence agencies for underwater espionage, remote monitoring of strategic underwater infrastructure, and other tasks. Their small size, relatively low cost, and ability to operate for long periods of time make them ideal for such uses.
Most modern submersibles are descendants of the first diving sphere (bathysphere), developed in the 1930s, and the more mobile submarine, which cannot operate at great depths. The inherent danger in a bathysphere was its inability to surface on its own accord, being raised and lowered by a winch system on a surface vessel. In 1954 one of the first types of submersible, the bathyscaphe, was designed and successfully tested by Auguste Piccard to overcome this problem and to provide limited maneuverability. A bathyscaphe is in effect an underwater balloon. The cabin is suspended beneath a large flotation chamber that contains gasoline and iron pellets. Submersion is accomplished by release of some gasoline, rendering the craft heavier than water. To rise, some of the iron-shot ballast is released. A second model of the bathyscaphe, called the Trieste II, carried two men to a record-breaking depth of 35,800 ft (10,900 m) at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 1960.
One of the most impressive submersibles is the Aluminaut, constructed of high-strength aluminum alloys and able to operate at 15,000 ft (4,570 m) carrying a crew of six. The Alvin, operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is capable of diving to depths of 13,000 ft (3,960 m) with a crew of three and, like the Aluminaut, is equipped with mechanical arms. In 1974 the Alvin and two French submersibles, the Archimède and Cyana, were used in a joint French-American venture, project FAMOUS (for French-American Mid-Ocean Undersea Study), to learn more about seafloor spreading. The Alvin was also used to photograph and retrieve objects from the Titanic after its discovery in 1987. In 1998 the French manned submersible Nautile, two manned Russian Mir submersibles, and assorted AUVs were used to raise a 22-ton section of the Titanic's hull. Using submersibles, James Cameron, in Deepsea Challenger, and Victor Vescovo, in DSV Limiting Factor, became the third and fourth persons to descend (2012, 2019) into the Challenger Deep (36,070 ft/10,994 m) in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific. Vescovo also used his submersible to become the first to reach the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Naval and Nautical Affairs