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James Cameron dive launches race to the bottom of the world (+video)

Before James Cameron made a solo dive to the Challenger Deep – the deepest point in the ocean – only one mission had been there before. Now, several groups are planning deep-sea dives, and engineering advances could shed new light on the region. 

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Other aspects of the Deepsea Challenger could be useful, too. Cameron's cameras are building a 3-D video of the features he saw at the bottom of Challenger Deep – a form of vision important for giving for gauging distances and spatial relationships. Chris German, chief scientist for deep submergence at Woods Hole, calls it three-dimensional context.

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Robots are the future

Over the long-term, however, Dr. German says improvements in sub technology, sensor technology, and virtual-reality tools are likely to reduce the need for humans in the hull. Just as scientists are exploring the solar system with probes controlled from Earth, they could explore the deep sea from dry land.

German is no stranger to the value manned submersibles play in marine science today. He's overseeing Alvin's upgrade. But, he says, the vehicles Cameron and others are developing may represent an effective but final generation.

Robotic vehicles can scope out sites, conducting the surveys that will allow researchers in submersibles to zero in on sites they want to visit and from which they want to pluck samples. And in some cases, robotic subs are doing both the reconnaissance and the follow-up research. 

In January, German says, he sent an expedition to explore the deepest known sites with undersea hydrothermal vents. The vents are associated with a feature south of Cuba known as the Mid-Cayman Rise. The cruise relied on the Nereus, a robotic sub that can be operated either via tether or autonomously. The cruise followed one in which other, smaller robotic subs did the up-close reconnaissance work.

Two robotic subs have also visited the Challenger Deep in the past two decades. In 1995, Japanese scientists used Kaiko, a remotely operated sub, to gather sediment samples and marine organisms. The craft made several more dives along the Mariana Trench, which includes the Challenger Deep, before it was lost at sea during a typhoon in 2003. In 2009, scientists gathered more samples using the Nereus.

These days, humans in the hull are most valuable when they come across something no one has ever seen before, German says. Nothing beats a human at seeing something for the first time and trying to make some initial sense of it. Cameron says more dives to the Challenger Deep will follow this one.

Still, within the next 20 to 30 years, undersea technology may advance to the point where humans remain on the ship or even at a mission-control center on land, and run an autonomous underwater vehicle adroit enough to gather the samples, carry a heavy load back to the surface, and has the vision that allows its human handlers to respond quickly to unexpected features or activity on the sea floor they are surveying.

The manned research subs coming on line this year “are entirely appropriate for this generation of researchers,” German says. “I very much doubt that in 30-odd years' time we'll be doing it again. I bet this is the last generation of human-occupied vehicles.”

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