Telepresence at UNH connects researchers to offshore ships

By Catie Hall
On October 4, 2013

With 12 monitors on one wall and more computers, desks and communications systems against another, the telepresence room at UNH is technology that might look at home on the "Star Trek" U.S.S. Enterprise. 

The telepresence room, among other ocean science projects, was one of the highlights at Ocean Discovery Day on the UNH campus on Saturday, Sept. 21. 

Tara Hicks-Johnson is an outreach specialist for the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center at UNH. She said that the purpose of Ocean Discovery Day is to let the community know about the science going on in the lab. 

According to Brian Calder, research associate professor at the Jere A. Chase Ocean Engineering Lab, almost every federal research project has an outreach component. In one way or another, the money ends up coming from the public purse.

"It's really part of our job to tell people what we do," he said. 

In order to tell people what they do, the lab hosts Ocean Discovery Day, which celebrated its fourth anniversary this year and draws more people each time. 

Calder said the first year of Ocean Discovery Day brought out a couple hundred people. This year, there were over 1,000 visitors.

Therefore, it was no surprise that eager middle school students filed in and out of the telepresence room while they shot questions at Adam Skarke, a physical scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. 

There were displays on each of the monitors in the telepresence room on Ocean Discovery Day that showcased pictures from ship explorations that used high-definition cameras to take pictures and videos hundreds of meters below the ocean's surface. 

Children asked about the fish that had multiple protrusions or bulbous bodies; adults asked how it all worked.

UNH's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping webpage explains that there are few telepresence rooms in the country, making UNH a unique home. The master console is at the University of Rhode Island. 

Based on the webpage description, "The purpose of these telepresence consoles is to conduct research remotely, collaborate with researchers who are unable to be on location, educate the public and promote international collaboration. UNH has participated in over a dozen research missions using this technology since the system came online in 2005."

To break it down, Skarke said the purpose of the telepresence room is to connect to ships with live feed from the Remotely Operated Vehicle on board and communications systems.

The government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration webpage describes the technology of the ROV, which "consists of a bell-shaped camera sled, a science-class ROV and a small xBot, all of which can operate as deep as 6,000 meters."

Skarke made it clear that the ROV can lead to more thorough sea exploration. The mission, he said, is to go where no one has been before.

The ship stops when the crew believes they find something interesting, Skarke said, and can send down a ROV that has high-definition, movie-quality cameras and mechanical arms. In essence, what the ROV sees, the crew sees.

The feed gets transmitted from the bottom of the ocean, to the ship, to a satellite and then to the telepresence room. 

Skarke coordinates sea expeditions, and he said that he only has 19 beds on the ship. That means that the ship cannot hold experts in every field, like physics, because they don't know what they will find.

Instead, experts can come into the telepresence room or view its live-feed online. Without having to be on the ship, the experts can analyze the feed and explain to crewmembers onboard what to do next. 

Skarke said that hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of scientists all over the world are involved in the exploration and conversation about what the crew is seeing because of the telepresence technology.

Although the telepresence technology is seven years old at UNH, Calder said scientists are still finding new and surprising ways to use it.

"I think it has changed the way we think about doing science on the ocean," Calder said.

 The telepresence room has been affecting the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at UNH since it was first launched. For the past seven years, Calder said the telepresence room has changed how sea explorers experience the scientific method. 

Calder explained that, typically, scientists propose a hypothesis and then develop an experiment to prove or disprove their initial hypothesis. When they finish their work, they usually have a conclusion to their hypothesis.

However, the exploration ships go by a different scientific method.

"What the ships of exploration do that the telepresence console supports is to try and change that slightly," Calder said, "so that instead of focusing on 'Here's the hypothesis, we want to go here and do some work, please give us money' - which is how it typically works - the ships of exploration, the goal is to work with old questions and form new questions, so go to places where we haven't been before or we were a very long time ago, but the instruments weren't as good."

As an example, Calder said a ship from France moved across the Atlantic when it ran into problems with some of its equipment. 

Before the telepresence room, Calder said they would have had to send people out to the ship and spend several days trying to figure out the problem and get everything working again. 

With the travel to and from the ship, that method was time-consuming and costly.

Therefore, with the ship from France, Calder and other scientists got in touch via the telepresence room and helped troubleshoot.

"We got the ship to send us a video-feed of what they were seeing," Calder said, "and then we had scientists and the director sit at the console here [at UNH]. We had the engineer from the manufacturer in Seattle and then the Director of Operations for the ship was in ... Ireland. We had everybody telepresenced together and, over the course of two hours, we ran a whole bunch of tests." 

In the several hours that the team was working, they remediated the problem over the telepresence system.  

While the telepresence room gives scientists a new way to look at ocean science, it's not all good, Calder said. 

On Sept. 9, 2001, Calder and his crew were surveying in the Gulf of Mexico when their sonar broke. They had to go into port, and Calder said everyone was depressed to have the equipment stall.

However, everyone got to experience something that lifted their spirits and reminded them why they came.

"We were cruising into Panama City and it was glassy cap outside - it was like Mill Pond," Calder said. "The moon was out, really, really bright, no clouds, flat caps. Everyone was on the back deck ... and just when we were leaning on the rail thinking [we were not having] much fun, a dolphin came right up to the ship and crested just under the water so it had this thin film of water over its head, broke the water, breathed, then went back under the water." 

Calder explained that most of the people he works with love going out to sea. When he talked about the dolphins in the Gulf, his face beamed.

"Something you miss if you're not actually at sea," Calder said after he explained his encounter with dolphins. "So, that's one of the downsides to telepresence." 

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