‘Titanic’ Director Cameron’s Mini Robot Probes May Aid Jet Quest

Film director and deep-sea explorer James Cameron said robot probes that were used on the wreck of the Titanic could be deployed to investigate debris from the missing Malaysian jet if it can be located on the ocean floor.

The probes, miniaturized versions of remotely operated vehicles that are controlled via hundreds of meters of optic fiber, would aid exploration of larger structures remaining from the plane as they did the interior of the Titanic, he said. Cameron isn’t planning to be involved in the jet search.

“If there were a role for the small robotics systems we developed for exploring inside wrecks, I’d be more than happy to facilitate,” Cameron said in an e-mailed response to questions. “This type of role is hypothetical and applicable only after the wreck has been found and imaged.”

The Canadian combined his twin passions for movies and the sea in “The Abyss” and 1997 blockbuster “Titanic,” making 12 submersible dives to the liner’s wreck site in preparation for filming. He later tapped his success in Hollywood to fund the Deepsea Challenger, in which he descended 35,800 feet into the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the ocean, in 2012.

The search for Malaysian Airline System Bhd. Flight 370 now hinges on the Bluefin-21, a so-called autonomous underwater vehicle that commenced sonar scans of the seabed this week after pings believed to come from the jet’s black-box flight recorders indicated a likely crash zone.

Debris Field

The Bluefin-21 could take two months to scour the search area about 1,500 miles west of Perth, according to the U.S. Navy, which deployed it, following a preprogrammed pattern that Cameron likens to mowing a lawn. The 16-foot vessel, which works by casting acoustic shadows to the sides of its sensors, has so far made three fruitless dives operating at the limits of its 4,500-meter (14,800 feet) depth rating.

The Bluefin Robotics Corp. craft will survey the benthic zone, as the seabed is known, seeking a debris field that would let searchers “home in on the wreck by following a gradient from lesser to greater debris density,” Cameron said. Sonar returns could also yield images of major wreck objects.

If a potential crash location is found, an ROV will be dispatched from a ship directly above the coordinates specified by the AUV. The submersible would be deployed for “visual confirmation that it’s the wreck you’re looking for and not a big rock or a World War II merchant ship, and for recovery of black boxes and imaging of the wreck site,” Cameron said.

‘Structurally Coherent’

There may then be a role for fiber-spooling mini-ROVs and specialist imaging that Cameron and brother Mike helped develop for dives on the RMS Titanic, which sank to 12,500 feet in 1912, and the German battleship DKM Bismarck, located 16,000 feet down following a battle with British warships in 1941.

“It would depend on how structurally coherent the wreck was, if there is even an ‘inside,’ or just scattered pieces,” Cameron said. “Typically when it comes to sites such as shipwrecks other people find them and I do the imaging, interior exploration and survey, forensic modeling and analysis.”

While miniaturized ROVs have been invaluable for entering shipwrecks, they weren’t needed in the documentation and recovery of debris from Air France Flight 447 in 2011, which had crashed in the Atlantic two years earlier.

In that case, the remains of the Airbus Group NV A330 were found at 12,800 feet by three Remus 6000 AUVs -- similar to the Bluefin-21 -- in a mission led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The wreckage was open on the bottom of the ocean and a larger ROV was used to recover its flight recorders, said Dave Gallo, director of special projects at Woods Hole.


Still, should complexities arise, Cameron would be a good resource, said Gallo, who occasionally turns to him for advice.

“His input is always welcome,” Gallo said. “He’s definitely an out-of-the-box thinker and one of the brightest ocean engineers on the planet.”

Maryland-based Phoenix International Holdings Inc., which worked on the AF447 recovery, has been conducting the Malaysian search under contract with the U.S. Navy. In addition to the Bluefin-21, the team has a Remora 3 ROV at a site in the U.S. which could descend to the seabed by cable for debris recovery, according to Jim Gibson, the company’s general manager.

The hunt for the Boeing Co. 777 that vanished March 8 with 239 people on board is the longest for a passenger jet in modern aviation history. No audio signals have been heard since April 8, suggesting the black-box batteries have run flat.

Remote Waters

Cameron, who studied physics at college and cites French marine explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau as an inspiration, said that if the ping signals detected by surface sonars were legitimate, the seabed search should be “by the numbers,” taking an order of weeks or a couple of months.

“Everything depends on the acoustic signatures received briefly being actually from the flight recorders,” he said. “Assuming that they were, then it’s only a matter of time.”

The Deepsea Challenger, which Cameron took to the bottom of the Challenger Deep off the Marianas Islands in 2012 before donating it to Woods Hole, is designed to work at “hadal depths” in trenches below 6,000 meters, making it ill-suited to the current search. The vessel drops vertically with limited scope for lateral movement, according to Cameron, who said there are a “large number” of suitable 6000-meter-rated craft.

Cameron, who directed the two top-grossing films of all time in “Titanic” and “Avatar,” says there’s little crossover between his film career and alter-ego as a marine technologist, with the exception of “some excellent polymath engineers” who worked on “The Abyss,” the 1989 release in which a deep-sea salvage team encounters an alien species.

“None of this had anything to do with my movie work,” he said. “Hollywood uses some of the most advanced computer technology in the world and some of the largest computing systems, but these are for the creation of fantasy images.”

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