UNH robot ship is part of latest search for aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart

  • UNH mascot atop the autonomous seafloor-mapping vessel known as BEN. UNH—Courtesy

  • UNH autonomous seafloor-mapping vessel BEN at sea. UNH—Courtesy

Published: 8/13/2019 1:47:24 PM

A robotic ship from the University of New Hampshire’s Marine School that can map the ocean floor is part of the latest effort to find out what happened to famed pilot Amelia Earhart, who disappeared over the Pacific Ocean eight decades ago.

The autonomous vessel, known as BEN, the Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator, will be mapping the seafloor near the island where Earhart sent her last radio transmission. The area is too deep for divers and too shallow for safe navigation by deep-water sonar systems. Maps produced by BEN will be used to target later dives by remotely operated vehicles, searching for remnants of Earhart’s plane.

The work is part of the mission led by oceanographer Robert Ballard, best known for finding the wreck of the Titanic, to look into the disappearance of Earhart in 1937. The expedition will be featured in a two-hour special, “Expedition Amelia,” that will be shown October 20 on the National Geographic channel.

Earhart, the best known female pilot in the first decades of the 20th century, was trying to become the first woman to fly a plane around the world when she disappeared. She and a navigator took off from Los Angeles, heading eastward, at a time when flying across the open ocean was still rare.

After multiple stops and repairs over six weeks, they made it to Papua New Guinea, north of Australia. They took off on July 2, 1937, for the first leg of the most dangerous part of her trip. At the time, airplanes rarely flew over the western Pacific Ocean, where the lack of radio or guidance systems meant they had to find their landing site of tiny Howland Island by dead reckoning.

The plane never arrived at Howland Island and numerous attempts have been made since to figure out what happened.

Evidence suggests Earhart made a successful landing on a reef near the island of Nikumaroro in the western Pacific Ocean and was able to transmit radio signals afterward. However, no plane was seen by Navy pilots surveying the islands several days after her disappearance, meaning the plane may have been pushed off the reef into deeper water.

The UNH robot will let Ballard and the crew aboard the EV Nautilus map the seafloor in the shallow areas adjacent to the island where Earhart sent her last radio transmission.

The UNH crew consists of research engineers Val Schmidt, lead of this operation, K.G. Fairbarn and Andy McLeod, who are aboard the EV Nautilus as well as Roland Arsenault, who is supporting the crew from shore. All are a part of the UNH Marine School’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping development and use robotics for marine science and seafloor mapping.

BEN is equipped with mapping systems including a KongsbergEM2040Pmultibeam echo-sounder and Applanix POS/MV navigation system, which allow it to make 3D topographic and acoustic backscatter maps of the seafloor. The Center has developed mission planning and “back-seat-driver” control software designed specifically for piloting BEN for the seafloor mapping mission. BEN was manufactured by ASV Global, in a design collaboration with the Center.

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