Cal Poly team maps shipwrecks with underwater sonar vehicle

Cal Poly computer science student Katie Davis, left, and computer science professor Zoe Wood head out to deploy the autonomous underwater vehicle.
Cal Poly computer science student Katie Davis, left, and computer science professor Zoe Wood head out to deploy the autonomous underwater vehicle.

A team of Cal Poly students and faculty visited Malta this summer to tinker with the technology of a torpedo-like underwater vehicle they’re using to investigate historic shipwrecks.

The sea off the coast of Malta, a picturesque island in the Mediterranean about 50 miles south of Sicily, is a graveyard of ancient sunken vessels.

For centuries, boat traffic between Africa and Europe would encounter turbulent surf, struggle against wild storms and massive swells, and occasionally never return.

“Over the next few years, we’ll be hoping to find and map some of these wrecks and provide new archaeological data,” said Zoe Wood, a Cal Poly computer science professor co-coordinating the project.

Marine archaeologists primarily have researched those shipwrecks through diving.

But those adventures can be dangerous. And people can’t travel to the same depths of an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) such as the one Cal Poly is designing with a partnering group from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont. Their AUV is being outfitted to go down 100 meters.

Arriving in Malta at the end of August, Wood’s team of five began a testing phase for their device.

They practiced navigating, even honing in on one known submarine wreck, the HMS Stubborn, which went down in 1946 after surviving illustrious battles in World War II.

The team uses sonar and a Go Pro camera to record data. They realized they’ll need extremely powerful lighting attached to the AUV to capture the best images.

“Underwater divers have used Go Pro cameras to capture enough info to map very good sequences of images and reconstruct what images they’re seeing,” Wood said. “What we’re seeking to do is to enable diving situations that go deeper and stay down longer. …We’ll need a really powerful light on the AUV. If you can get good photographs, you could recreate models.”

The researchers are being funded by multiple sources, including a $250,000 donation from the National Science Foundation.

The base of the AUV is built by OceanServer, a company that makes a product called an IVER — an underwater vehicle resembling a torpedo that is used for various marine data collection purposes.The technological applications for the research extend beyond shipwrecks; it could be used for oil pipeline inspections, homeland security purposes, and oceanographic studies.

“The (Cal Poly/Harvey Mudd) vehicle itself isn’t being built from the ground up, but modified and fitted with sensors,” Wood said.

As part of their experience, Wood posted blog photos that included a chapel in Malta and one of the team members swimming after their robot to observe its behavior.

They plan to make repeat trips back to Malta to fine-tune their device.

“We spent today on a boat working with the (technology) and getting them up and running and working on some kinks in the hardware,” Wood wrote. “We learned a ton about the working environment, challenges and beauty of the ocean.”