Researchers from the University of New Hampshire’s Marine School are part of a crew, led by National Geographic Explorer-at-Large Robert Ballard, setting out to answer questions around the disappearance of famed pilot Amelia Earhart. And they'll be using an autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) from the university's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping that can explore the seafloor in deep water.
The UNH ASV or robot, known as BEN for Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator, provides Ballard and the crew aboard the EV Nautilus with a unique capability to map the seafloor in the shallow areas adjacent to the island where Earhart sent her last radio transmission. This area is too deep for divers and too shallow for safe navigation of the Nautilus to use its deep-water sonar systems. Maps of the ocean floor produced by BEN will be used by the Nautilus crew to target dives with remotely operated vehicles (ROV) in the search for remnants of the plane.
Many think Earhart made a successful landing, likely near the coral reef around the island of Nikumaroro, in the western Pacific Ocean, and was able to transmit radio signals afterward. However, no plane was seen by Navy pilots surveying the islands several days after her disappearance suggesting that the plane may have been pushed off the reef into deeper water.
BEN's mapping systems include a Kongsberg EM2040P multibeam echo-sounder and Applanix POS/MV navigation system, which allow it to make 3D topographic and acoustic backscatter maps of the seafloor. The Center has developed mission planning and “back-seat-driver" control software designed specifically for piloting BEN.
The UNH crew includes research engineers Val Schmidt, operation leader, KG Fairbarn, and Andy McLeod, who are all aboard the EV Nautilus as well as Roland Arsenault, who is supporting the crew from shore. All are a part of the Marine School’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping development and use of robotics for marine science and seafloor mapping.
The expedition will be featured in a two-hour special titled Expedition Amelia that will premiere October 20, on National Geographic.
Pictured: The autonomous surface vehicle known as BEN (Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator), designed and built at the University of New Hampshire, is aboard the EV Nautilus helping researchers solve the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Photo credit: UNH