Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Deep Submergence Laboratory

Discovery and Exploration of Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vents using an Autonomous Robot

Over the past four years, we have used the Autonomous Benthic Explorer (ABE) to discover and explore hydrothermal vent fields at many sites around the world. We have developed a 3-phase approach based on the physics of deep sea plumes. While skilled human input is required to plan each phase, the vehicle executes each phase with complete autonomy, culminating in closeup photo survey of active vents and the animals living there. Our initial vent discoveries were in the Lau Basin between Fiji and Tonga. We later discovered the first vent fields on the Southern Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the Southwest Indian Ridge. Most of these expeditions were performed in remote parts of the world without backup from a remotely operated or human occupied vehicle.

This talk will describe our methodology and show results from our expeditions. The talk will conclude with a discussion of our present efforts to automate those elements that still require human input.


Dr. Dana Yoerger received the SB, SM, and PhD degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently an Associate Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he designs and implements robotic control systems for telerobotic and autonomous underwater vehicles. He supervises the thesis research of students enrolled in the WHOI/MIT joint program in Oceanographic Engineering, in the areas of control, robotics, and design.

Dr. Yoerger has gone to sea on over 50 oceanographic expeditions, including the 1985 Titanic discovery cruise. Other expeditions include archaeological surveys of ancient shipwrecks, a forensic investigation of a modern shipwreck, and scientific surveys of sites along the Mid-Ocean Ridge. He was a member of the team that developed the telerobotic control system for the Jason ROV and has served as Jason navigator on many cruises. He has been to the deep seafloor six times in DSV Alvin. For operations of the fully autonomous ABE vehicle, his responsibilities include science liaison, control system design and implementation, mission programming and testing, and generation of data products. New developments include Sentry, a successor to ABE, and Nereus, a hybrid vehicle that will be used as both and autonomous and teleoperated vehicle at depths to 11000 meters.

He has also participated in a number of education and outreach programs featuring deep submergence technology and seafloor exploration. These include five Jason Project expeditions and two REVEL programs.

Dr. Yoerger is a member of WHOI's Deep Submergence Laboratory (DSL) which was founded by Dr. Robert Ballard. DSL features a unique team of engineers, technicians, administrators, and students who perform engineering research and development, and also conduct extensive oceanographic field work under the auspices of WHOI's National Deep Submergence Facility. He also works with engineers from WHOI's Applied Engineering Laboratory and the Alvin Group.