National Geographic explorer Robert Ballard and researchers at the Marine School of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) are about to embark on a mission that could shed light on the disappearance of America’s most famous female aviator, Amerlia Earhart.
In carrying out the mission, the team will be using robotic technology developed and provided by UNH’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping. A robot, classified as an autonomous surface vehicle or ASV, can reach the hard-to-reach seafloor of the waters where Earhart had transmitted her last distress call. .
Prior to the famed pilot’s disappearance in 1937, she was able to send radio signals that indicated she was able to make a successful landing. Evidence showed that she may have landed in the western Pacific Ocean, near the coral reefs surrounding the island of Nikumaroro. Navy pilots though who surveyed the islands several days after Earheart’s disappearance, did not see any plane. This led them to surmise that the aircraft may have toppled off and fell into the deep.
Ballard and the UNH marine researchers will be boarding the EV Nautilus, bringing with them an ASV specifically known as the Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator or BEN. BEN is a robot with a unique capability to explore the seafloor and provide a map of the shallow areas next to the island where Earhart had transmitted her last radio call. The area has been assessed as too deep for divers to explore, as well as too shallow for safe navigation of the Nautilus.
The maps of the seafloor that BEN will generate using its deep-water sonar systems, will provide the EV Nautilus crew with guides on where to send remotely operated vehicles (ROV) that will perform the actual search for remnants of Earhart’s plane.
The National Geographic TV channel will be featuring the expedition in a two-hour special captioned as “EXPEDITION AMELIA,” on October 20, 2019. Aside from NatGeo’s explorer Robert Ballard, the TV special will see UNH research engineers Val Schmidt, KG Fairbarn, and Andy McLeod aboard the EV Nautilus. Completing the UNH Marine School’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping’s robotics team for seafloor mapping is Roland Arsenault, as lead of the on-shore crew supporting the deep sea marine exploration. .
BEN the robot is outfitted with state-of-the-art seafloor mapping systems, multibeam echo-sounder (Kongsberg EM2040P) and an Applanix POS/MV navigation system.
The Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping developed a mission planning software to oversee the robot when making 3D topographic impressions. In addition, the Center also developed a “back-seat-driver” control software to pilot BEN during the seafloor mapping activities.