Underwater robot time machine: SeaMonster interviews Dr. Mark Patterson

 

In the sultry late summer of 1781, General Cornwallis, Commander of British forces in Virginia, was holed up in Yorktown building fortifications to secure a deep-water port for the Royals, and thus control of the strategically critical Chesapeake Bay. General Washington, in consultation with French allies, dispatched a French fleet to stop them, a series of intrigues, chases, and a sea battle ensued, and — long story short — the French fleet held off the British ships, Cornwallis was left without reinforcements and forced to surrender in September, and the American Revolution was essentially all over but the shouting. The rest, as they say, is history. During the melee several British ships were scuttled in the River off Yorktown to keep them out of enemy hands, and some have been missing for over two centuries.

Until now.

Digital sonar image of a newly discovered vessel on at bottom of the York River

The shifting sands (technically marine sediments) of time have recently revealed some of the long-lost ships, which are visible as plain as day by sonar, lying on the bottom of the York River (see photo at right).  Dr. Mark Patterson of VIMS, together with Dr. Dave Niebuhr of the Watermen’s Museum, have launched a cool new project to map the wrecks with underwater robots, and  the help of local schoolkids [That’s Mark with his robot Fetch! above — though the idyllic scene is not the York River, I can assure you.]. From the VIMS website:

“The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, will allow the students to pilot unmanned robotic submarines in an attempt to monitor the conservation status of shipwrecked vessels scuttled by Lord Cornwallis during the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.The project capitalizes on the recent discovery in the York River of two new shipwrecks from the Yorktown battle and siege. The researchers believe the previously buried wrecks were uncovered by strong currents during recent tropical storms, and are concerned that their exposure on the bayfloor may lead to rapid degradation. By mapping the wrecks’ outlines, the students will help conservators monitor their condition and take preventive measures if necessary.”

Dr. Mark Patterson

Since lead scientist and underwater pioneer Mark Patterson’s office is just around the corner from mine (and, coincidentally, following on the heels of Miriam Goldstein’s great essay on becoming a marine biologist at Deep-SeaNews), SeaMonster was able to land . . .

The Exclusive Interview:

SeaMonster: I understand you and your robot team will be exploring the wreck of Admiral Cornwallis’s ship that went down just offshore of VIMS here, where the decisive battle of the American Revolution was fought. What’s your plan?

Mark Patterson: We will be using two kinds of robots, operated by school kids, to help monitor the condition of these national treasures. One of the robots is a tethered vehicle called a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), essentially a swimming video camera that provides immediate “telepresence” on the bottom of the river. In other words,the kids will see a real-time video image of the state of the wreck. The other kind of robot we will be using is a free-swimming robot, called an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). This robot will make short dives going past the shipwrecks, imaging them with something called a sidescan sonar Sidescan sonars make high definition pictures with sound, much like a medical ultrasound can make a picture of an internal organ. When the robot returns and we download the images, the kids will get a larger view of the wreck than that viewable on video in the highly murky water of the Chesapeake Bay.

 

Ships in the York River during the Battle of Yorktown in 1781

SeaMonster: How will your 21st century technology yield new insights on the 18th century?

Mark: Robots like these are being used increasingly in marine archeology. They don’t get tired like a person would diving on the wrecks, and they can work under conditions when it wouldn’t be safe to send a person underwater. We hope to document the condition of the wrecks, including some new ones found by Dr. John Broadwater, former Chief of Marine Archeology for NOAA. Because the York River is a dyna