As Eric Terrill, director of the Coastal Observing and Research Center at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, spoke on a perfect afternoon late last month, a bright yellow torpedo-shaped robotic vehicle began diving below the surface of the warm Pacific Ocean waters nearby. Then it was gone.
Known as a Remus, it’s a 5-foot-long, 81-pound remote operated vehicle, a $300,000 package of sensors, cameras, electronics, and other gear designed to survey the ocean.
Scripps and its partners at the University of Delaware School of Marine Science have used Remuses for several years, and they make annual pilgrimages, supported by the US Office of Naval Research, to Palau to conduct numerous oceanographic studies on things such as currents, weather data, and the rise in sea level.
Since 2012, the teams have also used their high-tech gear for a mission with much more immediate human consequence. They’ve been working with a volunteer organization called the BentProp Projectto hunt the Palauan waters for lost American planes, shot down by the Japanese during World War II, and the MIAs who were aboard them. “It’s the treasure hunt of all treasure hunts,” said Scripps Ph.D. student Travis Schramek, “only it’s got a real moral story to it.”
That Terrill is hoping his Remus will discover a plane is a small bit of hubris. During the previous week,BentProp and its oceanographic partners had found two wrecks: a TBM Avenger, and an F6F Hellcat. BentProp makes its own, self-funded annual expeditions to Palau and had been looking for those specific planes since 2005 and 2004, respectively. Thanks in large part to the Scripps and “UDel” Remuses and other oceanographic tools, those planes are no longer lost. The finds were a big win for everyone involved. As BentProp team leader Pat Scannon put it to me, “To find two MIA sites in a single season is unprecedented in our experience.”
This was the third year Scripps and Delaware worked with BentProp, and the scientists brought some technology and some new approaches with them.
Everywhere you looked, someone had a GoPro. Both the oceanographic and BentProp teams had used the cameras on their own for some time, given that they’re small, easy to use, and can shoot HD video and high-quality photos underwater. Plus, they’re relatively inexpensive, so it’s not a disaster if they’re lost in action. This year, GoPro got on board the Palau expedition as a sponsor.