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Underwater Drones Nearly Triple Data From the Ocean Floor

They’ve located lost subs and carriers, but haven’t yet found any planes.

Retrieving a Hugin drone after a test run offshore.

Retrieving a Hugin drone after a test run offshore.

Photographer: Ivar Kvaal for Bloomberg Businessweek

Last November a small seabed-exploration company out of Houston called Ocean Infinity made the discovery of a lifetime—or so it seemed, until it made another three months later. First, Ocean Infinity successfully located the remains of the San Juan, an Argentine navy sub that had vanished while on patrol. Then it found the wreck of the Stellar Daisy, a South Korean bulk ore carrier. Both vessels had been missing for more than a year, which often means a wreck won’t ever be found. The two-year-old company’s secret was teamwork: a set of eight drone subs working in tandem to scan a much larger area in record time.

These successes could be part of a broader shift in how humanity understands the sea. We know far more about the surface of Mars than we do about the bottom of the ocean, but seabed-scanning technology is growing sophisticated enough to render the inky depths much more transparent. Seabed 2030, a joint project of two nonprofits, aims to map the entire ocean floor by its namesake year. Key to that effort is Kongsberg Maritime AS, the Norwegian company that made Ocean Infinity’s subs.