Archaeology and Exploration

AUVs provide a leap in capabilities which benefit the field of undersea archaeology and exploration. Locating undersea archaeological sites is a daunting prospect and a costly, time-consuming process. Once discovered, sites present obstacles and challenges that prevent exploitation. These include depth, water conditions such as turbidity and current, and the requirement for support vessels and crews to remain on site for any significant period of time.

BOSS imagery showing two newly discovered buried objects that appear similar to the previously found cannon from the shipwreck. Image courtesy of AUVfest 2008: Partnership Runs Deep, Navy/NOAA, OceanExplorer.noaa.gov.

SAS imagery of the Prudence Island shipwreck from AUVfest 2008 shows lines the buoy chain has left in the sand. Image courtesy of AUVfest 2008: Partnership Runs Deep, Navy/NOAA, OceanExplorer.noaa.gov

AUVs overcome many of the issues that inhibit the full exploration of undersea archaeological troves. AUVs perform wide-area searches which greatly increase the likelihood of discovering such sites, and the navigation accuracy of the AUVs guarantees that identified sites can be relocated with confidence. Employing high-quality sensors such as sonar, magnetometers, and sampling instruments, AUVs can collect multiple types of essential data more efficiently than other platforms. The endurance and autonomy AUVs offer reduces the logistics burden and increases time on station, even when surface conditions might deter traditional searches. With AUVs, the entire site can be mapped.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) and NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research sponsored AUVfest 2008, which demonstrated the utility of AUVs in undersea archaeological research. During this event, several known sites were re-explored and new ones were discovered. The NOAA website discusses the capability of the Bluefin-12 equipped with a Buried Object Sensing Sonar (BOSS): “Many of us were interested to see what the AUVs could discover on this site. Although it has been the subject of much research, little is known about what lies beneath the sediment at this site. The best vehicle for investigating the Cerberus is the BOSS, which combines a camera, gradiometer (to locate ferrous metal), and a bottom object scanning sonar (BOSS) that can image buried objects. For analysis, all this data can be fused together and graphically overlaid to see correlations between the sensors — a perfect tool for any archaeologist investigating an old shipwreck. Should BOSS ever make it to the commercial market, archaeologists could use it to ‘see’ below the bottom. They could undertake fewer excavations, which are very expensive, and really target areas that should be excavated.”

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Bluefin products that address this application include: