WITHOUT the robotic services of MiniRover, the 29-inch, remote-controlled, bright yellow submarine that has fearlessly surveyed the explosive bottom of Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone's aquatic worlds would still be a big secret. With hundreds of small ``microquakes'' shaking Yellowstone every day, triggering underwater landslides and changes in boiling hot-water flows, sending a manned submarine into the roiling depths of Yellowstone Lake would be too dangerous, researchers say.
``I don't know anyone who would want to risk going down there,'' says geochemist Val Klump, who with fellow scientist Charles Remsen was the first human to reach the bottom of Lake Superior in a bathysphere. ``It's too shaky and turbulent.''
So the Yellowstone research team contracted with David Lovalvo, who owns and operates MiniRover, to provide the expedition's underwater eyes and other senses. Oil companies often use such submarines for deep-water prospecting, and insurance companies depend on them to retrieve parts or bodies from submerged airplanes or shipwrecks (one viewed the remains of the Titanic).
With a joystick reminiscent of video games and a few other simple controls, Mr. Lovalvo directs MiniRover's dual electric thrusters from the dry comfort of the command boat. He watches the video image transmitted from the sub's Cyclopsian bubble eye via a 500-foot electronic umbilical cord, which also carries power to the sub from a shipboard generator.
In its role in the Yellowstone Lake research, MiniRover looks like the lead player in a low-budget sci-fi flick. To get the most data for their money, the researchers strapped a still camera, compass, thermometer, and depth and conductivity meters onto the little sub's back, sides, and front.
``Some of the most advanced remote-submarine technology we have right now has been developed for this project,'' Lovalvo says. ``It's a growing field, but if you need a specialized device, you've basically got to build it yourself.''