BEN the drone boat of Michigan’s Shipwreck Alley

Thanks to Business Insider for this:

  • University of New Hampshire’s autonomous boat, Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator (BEN), finds lost shipwrecks.
  • BEN is a “C-Worker 4” model robotic vehicle co-designed and manufactured by ASV Global LLC. The system provides a research platform with enough endurance to undertake production survey operations while developing and testing various modes of operation, vehicle behaviors, control algorithms and tight sensor integration.
  • BEN maps the ocean floor in spots that are too shallow or dangerous for divers or traditional ships.
  • BEN has also been involved in the search to find what happened to Amelia Earhart.
  • The vessel is fitted with a multibeam sonar system which is used to map target areas and scan the lake floor.

This bright yellow autonomous boat might be the key to unlocking the ocean’s secrets. Built by researchers at the University of New Hampshire, the Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator is more affectionately called BEN.

The self-driving boat is used to map the ocean floor, and can assist crews in finding long-lost wrecks, like the famous Ohio in Lake Huron, as The Verge reported. BEN has been involved in other recent searches, and mapping the ocean floor can help improve understanding of the ocean and climate in other ways, too.

BEN the drone boat of Michigan’s Shipwreck Alley

Autonomous surface vehicles like BEN are used to gather data that divers and ships with crews can’t reach.

It sends information back to the control room in the trailer on shore.

BEN is bright yellow, and about 13 feet long. It can travel for about 16 hours before needing to refuel.

In August, BEN set out to find answers to the disappearance of pilot Amelia Earhart in 1937.

The first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart sent her last radio signals from somewhere over the Pacific in 1937 during an attempted world flight.

BEN and the research vessel EV Nautilus went out to look for information on the ocean floor that might give insight about what happened to Earhart.

BEN the drone boat of Michigan’s Shipwreck Alley

BEN was lowered into the water near the tiny island Nikumaroro in the South Pacific, about halfway between New Guinea and Hawaii.

Mapping the ocean floor is expensive and labor intensive, and scientists estimate we’ve only mapped 9% of the total area.

Equipment on BEN will collect data to create 3D topographic maps of the ocean floor.

Scientists think better knowledge of the ocean floor could help us understand climate change, improve safety at sea, and make it easier to create deep sea cables.

The crew of the Nautilus will use that data to target dives and hopefully find evidence from Earhart’s flight.

BEN was also used in Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay, sometimes called “Shipwreck Alley” for its history of disastrous wrecks.

BEN the drone boat of Michigan’s Shipwreck Alley

It’s here in Alpena, Michigan, a small town of 10,000, that the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is based. The sanctuary is overseen by NOAA, and it protects some 4,300 square miles of freshwater — basically, the top half of Lake Huron on the American side. Like the world’s oceans, much of it has never been mapped.

“If you can believe it in this day and age of technology, we have only surveyed about 16 percent of the sanctuary,” said Stephanie Gandulla, the sanctuary’s research coordinator. Gandulla told me there are 99 known wrecks in the sanctuary’s waters, but at least 100 more that have yet to be found — the Ironton among them. That’s not even including the countless wrecks that lie outside the sanctuary, which litter the lake’s Canadian side. “There’s lots of work yet to be done,” she said.

Leading BEN’s sojourn on Lake Huron was Lindsey Gee, the mapping and science coordinator of the Ocean Exploration Trust, the ocean research nonprofit founded by explorer Robert Ballard of Titanic discovery fame. Gee and his colleagues don’t typically map freshwater lakes, but they decided to collaborate with the sanctuary, and the University of New Hampshire researchers, in anticipation of using BEN at sea.

BEN the drone boat of Michigan’s Shipwreck Alley

The boat’s size makes BEN well-suited to coastal waters, and regions too shallow for larger boats yet too deep for divers. They planned to spend two weeks in and around Alpena mapping points of interest to the sanctuary’s staff — the Ironton among them. The hope is that BEN — tireless, automated — will eventually be able to collect more data for analysis than the sanctuary’s own crewed research vessel Storm could collect on its own. When I visited, the researchers were preparing to map some shallower shipwrecks that were close to Alpena’s shores. It was a dry run of sorts for the Ironton search to come.

BEN’s minders sat across the marina, inside a small white tractor-trailer parked by a break wall — the mobile command and control center that is crucial to BEN’s operation. It is much more spacious on the inside than it seems from outside, crammed with computers, tables, tools, and a trio of giant screens that let the researchers monitor BEN’s vitals and see what its cameras and radar see. Blessed with a day of clear weather in an otherwise dreary week, the researchers offered to show me how BEN makes maps.

Val Schmidt, the university research engineer who leads BEN’s development, helped ease BEN down the boat launch and into place alongside one of the marina’s docks. BEN’s automatic identification system declares itself a “pleasure craft”; there’s no option yet for “self-driving boat.” Fully fueled, it weighs about 2,000 pounds and can run for around 16 hours.

Should they ever lose contact, there’s also a kill switch on the side of the boat — a simple lanyard of red string tied to a cap. Pull the string, the cap comes off, and the fuel stops flowing. That way it can’t run away to Canada, one of Schmidt’s colleagues joked.

BEN @ University of New Hampshire

The Verge article

BEN the drone boat of Michigan’s Shipwreck Alley
680kg lightship
Marine diesel engine driving waterjet
Up to 7 knots
Up to 48 hours
Payload capacity:
20kg (on pole); 22kg (in 19″ rack)
Payload power:
Up to 800W nominal; up to 1.5kW peak
ASView for direct, semi-autonomous or autonomous control

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