Underwater Robots Are Searching for an Ancient Shipwreck in the Arctic

The disappearance of the doomed Franklin expedition has become the stuff of legend.

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Aug 25 2016, 4:11pm

Image: Deep Trekker

Back in 1845, explorer John Franklin left England with two ships, the HMS Erebus and Terror, to find a way through the storied Northwest Passage—which, back then, was mostly locked up in year-round ice. Things didn't go well. The ships disappeared, as did Franklin and his crew, spawning a mystery that's become the stuff of legend.

In 2014, a Canadian expedition finally found the remains of the HMS Erebus in the labyrinthine waters around Nunavut, a northern territory that includes most of the Canadian Arctic archipelago. Now they're going North again to look for the Terror.

One of Deep Trekker's underwater drones, operating in Honduras. Image: Deep Trekker

To find its sunken remains—and to check up on Erebus—Parks Canada's underwater archaeologists will be using an arsenal of high-tech equipment, including two portable underwater drones built by an Ontario company, Deep Trekker.

Deep Trekker's robots were partly inspired by president Sam Macdonald's keenness for the many shipwrecks scattered through the Great Lakes. "I was interested in having a cool toy for checking out shipwrecks in Ontario," she told me, adding that Tobermory, on the Bruce Peninsula, is her favourite place to dive. It's famous for sunken ships.

Underwater drone exploring Tobermory's Wetmore wreck. Video: Deep Trekker/YouTube

The ROVs that Parks Canada is using in the Arctic "are round," she said, "about the size of a basketball." They only weigh 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds), and they're extremely portable: When we spoke, Macdonald had just gotten back from Hawaii, where she was using one to check out the wreck of the USS Arizona, a battleship that sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor. "I carried my own [ROV] on the airplane with me, so they travel well," she said.

Batteries are mounted on the device, so the tether that connects it to the ship is relatively thin, reducing drag. "That's important because in the water, [the tether] can be overwhelmed by the current," she said. These robots can take video or use sonar if there's poor visibility, and with a manipulator arm, they're actually very handy—collecting samples, slicing ropes, and testing the thickness of the hull.

The control system. Image: Deep Trekker

Just like with sending a rover to Mars, deploying a drone underwater means that people are kept out of harm's way. "Because [the wreck is] so ancient, and freezes and thaws every year, you don't want to send a diver in there," she said.

Parks Canada declined to comment on the mission, which officially starts at the end of August and wraps up in mid-September. ("An interview is currently not possible as the team is already travelling up north for the mission," a spokesperson said. Media is barred from participating the expedition because of its "limited operational window," says a statement.)

Operating an ROV under the ice. Image: Deep Trekker

"I'm a shipwreck junkie," Macdonald said of the Franklin ships. "I'm hoping they're able to gain insight into what happened. It's quite a storied event—epic if you will. [The ships] have been trapped in the ice for so long." She's hoping that finding the Terror wreck will give "some clues on how [the explorers] were living their final days in the Arctic."

Deep Trekker, whose robots are used for aquaculture or police and military purposes alongside underwater archaeology, is fielding more requests for jobs in the Arctic, Macdonald said, as the once-impenetrable ice melts.

An image of the Northwest Passage captured via satellite, acquired Aug. 9, 2016. Image: NASAEarth Observatory

Franklin wouldn't recognize the Northwest Passage today. He and his crew were lost trying to find a navigable path across the top of the world. There's a strange symmetry to the fact that, as Parks Canada seeks out his missing wreck, thousands of paying passengers are trundling through the Northwest Passage on a monster cruise ship.

You don't need to look any further than that for proof of how much the Arctic is changing.