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Alameda firm builds Antarctica-bound sub

Submitted by on 1, January 11, 2011 – 11:03 amNo Comment

Courtesy of DOER Marine

When scientists begin probing the base of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in an effort to better understand the effects of global warming, they’ll do so with the aid of a 28-foot-long robotic submarine designed by an Alameda firm.

The 2,200-pound, $1 million unmanned submarine was designed and built by DOER Marine, which was founded in 1992 as a marine consulting firm called Deep Ocean Exploration and Research and has been at the Alameda Marina since 1999. The company, which averages 15 to 20 employees depending on its projects, builds a host of submersibles like the robotically operated vehicle (ROV) headed to Antarctica and other underwater equipment, and it provides everything from design support to help out in the field. Customers include an alphabet soup of government agencies, filmmakers and wealthy yacht owners who purchase DOER’s equipment for private use.

“We worked to build something from the ground up,” Liz Taylor, DOER’s president, said of the cigar-shaped ROV, which took three years to build. “I think we’re the only company left in the U.S. who will take on a project like this.”

Scientists plan to drill a 30-inch borehole a half mile deep through the Ross Ice Shelf where, with the aid of DOER’s ROV, they will be able to see, for the first time ever, melting and other conditions where ice and ocean meet.

“The submarine … will allow us to retrieve information that is critical to glacial and climate modelers who are trying to project potential future rises in global sea levels due to global warming,” Ross Powell, a geologist at Northern Illinois University who will be leading the project, recently told a campus publication.

Taylor said she had worked with Powell on an earlier project, leading to a call for help with the Antarctic venture. “He had an idea about building a really capable tool to get under the Ross Ice Shelf instead of just around the edges,” Taylor said. “He sought me out again and asked what the chances were of coming up with something like this.”

The ROV can collapse to a width of just 22 inches, and it carries more than two dozen sensors; a high-definition camera offering live, real-time video; and a host of devices that can sample water chemistry, currents and more. Some of the analysis will be streamed up to the surface while the ROV continues to work below; it can also collect rock and sediment samples, which will be sent up through the bore hole in a dumbwaiter-style elevator.

DOER has assisted several high profile projects, including efforts to map the oceans for Google Earth. Taylor, who had planned on a career in science communications but ended up taking over the firm started her mother, worked with the U.S. Navy to reach an agreement allowing Google to use the Navy’s bathymetric data so the search giant could more accurately map the oceans’ contours.

The company is also helping out with an effort headed in part by Taylor’s mother and DOER’s founder, National Geographic explorer-in-residence Dr. Sylvia Earle, to document the effects of the April 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico and to identify areas where an ecological recovery can be staged. That expedition is now underway.

Before being shipped to Antarctica, the ROV will get a test run in March on Lake Tahoe. Taylor hopes to gather data on several earthquake faults that run through the lake but haven’t been mapped, which she will share with the state’s Seismic Safety Commission.

“It’s full of urban legend and lore,” she said.

The ROV will head to Antarctica after that, stopping at McMurdo Station, the United States’ main base in Antarctica, for more controlled use before being delivered to the Ross Ice Shelf. Taylor said she thinks it will be sent to McMurdo in the summer for use in the fall.

“The following season, it’ll make a big traverse across the ice shelf, with snow cats, like something out of ‘National Treasure,'” Taylor said.

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