The Titanic Expedition: A Race To Map The Wreckage Before The Ship Disintegrates

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Twenty-five years ago to the day, oceanographer Robert Ballard and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution discovered the wreckage of the R.M.S. Titanic 2.5 miles under the water’s surface. Since its discovery, the Titanic has become a international fascination, but our time with this underwater wonder is limited. Researchers familiar with site say the ship’s deck could collapse within 25 years, and the massive hull isn’t fairing much better. It’s slowly being eaten away by microbes, and eventually, will dissolve into the ocean’s floor.

(More on Time.com: A Brief History Of The Titanic Discovery)

To preserve the underwater scene of the wreckage, an expedition is underway to create an interactive, 3D map the entire area. Using sonar and advanced HD 3D camera technology, a team from Woods Hole is careful combing its way through every inch of the site, in order to bring us what is, essentially, a 3D Google Street view of the Titanic as it sits on the bottom of sea. Co-expedition leader David Gallo spoke to Techland about the technology that will bring these stunning, never seen before views of the fallen ship right into our homes.

Allie Townsend: Tell me a little about the project.

David Gallo: Woods Hole discovered Titanic back in 1985 and explored it more fully in 1986. At the time, we used what were new technologies – cameras that you towed around and that were mounted on the bottom of the submarine. Twenty-five years have gone by since then and there have been many trips to Titanic. Almost all of them are about exploration. What we’re doing now is the first scientific exploration to Titanic. The anecdotal reason is that the ship is deteriorating. It’s being munched away by microbes. The hull is actually being eaten away. The walls look thinner. The deck looks like it’s collapsing. No one really knows how long Titanic as we know it today will be around without it being collapsed completely or partially.

One of the things we will do is take the proper samples scientifically to assess how rapidly Titanic is deteriorating. We want to preserve Titanic and the legacy of the ship and all those who sailed on her by creating a virtual Titanic – we want to map everything. You have the big sections of the ship – it’s broken in two – the bow section and the stern section and there’s many many big pieces in between. You also have tens of thousands of artifacts that are on the sea floor around Titanic, the artifact field.. The past 25 years of exploration have looked at those things but there’s still no map. We don’t know what it looks like, what the terrain looks like – the ship’s not even in context in terms of the surrounding sea floor. Our goal, and we’re well on the way to doing this, is to map a big area, 3-by-5 miles around the bow and stern sections and then identify a smaller area within that that we really want to get into in detail with sonars and making maps using 3D high-definition cameras.

Once you build this virtual titanic, you’ll have the bow and the stern and everything inbetween the surrounding terrain for everyone to explore. You won’t have to look over my shoulders or Jim Cameron’s shoulders or Bob Ballard’s. Instead of being a passive participant, you can go look at everything yourself. It’s the real deal. If you look ath the paintings by Ken Marschall that were on the cover of Bob Ballard’s book, they caputred the imaginations of the world with the Titanic sitting on the ocean floor, but they’re not real images. They’re paintings. Today we have the technology to make those images real.

AT: What will it accomplish?

DG: We learned a lot from titanic. the advanced technology we’re using today on Titanic – the autonomous vehicles, the robots, the 3D cameras – they’re the grandchildren of the technology we had on the initial Titanic voyage. We not only learned how to build tools to explore the Titanic, but we learned how to use them. It’s operational expertise. Every year about 14 ships will go to the bottom, and they’re about the size of Titanic and you almost never hear about them. Now, with this new technology, no shipwreck is beyond our reach. Even if they sink in the deepest sea, we can get in there and figure out why they sank and recover things if they need us to. A lot of those technologies have been used on, in and around Titanic.

AT: Is this the first underwater archeological project of its kind?

DG: Yes. One one hand you’ve got the Indiana Jones archeologists, but most people know archeology is painstaking. It’s people with toothpicks and little tiny paintbrushes trying to get one little pottery shard out. That’s not exactly what we’re doing, but it’s close. The kinds of digital information that we’re taking, it’s not running around Indiana Jones style, it’s that other painstaking mapping of the sea floor, back and forth with robots just like a well plowed field. We’re running very detailed, precise lines. We know where everything is with precise accuracy.

AT: Tell me about the tech you’re using.

DG: We have AUVs, autonomous underwater vehicles, small and torpedo shaped, designed to be launched and dropped off the back of ship. They’re on the bottom together and have the ability to run these very long, detailed lines. Turn around, come back, go forward. They carry sonars which make maps with sounds so we get the shape and texture of the sea floor. If there’s a chair, or suitcase or lamp sitting on the sea floor we can see it with those sonars. And they carry downlooking cameras that can take photograph and have a down-ward facing sonar called a sub-bottom profiler. We’re using those to give us the plain view, the Google Maps view of Titanic’s world.

Then we have the ROV, remotely operated vehicle. It’s connected by a cable – we’ve got about 3 miles of fiber optic cable out there. It’s carrying these advanced 3D HD cameras, many of them to really get up close to the hull and take the beautiful images that you see online. The AUVs you have to launch and about 20 hours later they come back up and we see what they saw. The ROVs, we see right away.

We’ve got two rooms aboard the ship. One where we’re processing the maps, so we can see the Google Earth view of Titanic’s world and right next door we’ve got the HD 3D images coming in. It’s incredible to see people running back and forth between the two. Any one of those sensors is new to have on the bottom of the ocean, and at a shipwreck, especially one this deep.  But the ensemble, I don’t think has ever been done before. We have two AUVs and one ROV, 3 robots in the water at the same time, at the same wreck site, 2.5 miles down. It’s a brand new thing.

AT: What’s it like to look at this new HD footage?

DG: It’s jaw dropping. Billy Lange is the head of our advanced imaging and visualization lab. He’s the guy who first laid eyes on the Titanic that night in 1985. He was on watch that night and Billy built these cameras and his team is responsible for them. They were built here at Woods Hole. I’ve learned that when Bill says, “I’ve got something new,” you’ve really got to see it that you’ve got to run and see it because I’ve watched over time and these fuzzy blue images have turned into crisp blue images have turned into stunning wide vistas and all of a sudden we’re in this 3D world. And I have to tell you, I’ve seen the 3D from James Cameron. I’ve seen other images from other people, but these are jaw dropping. They really are.

I am chomping at the bit to get back out there, to get to that ship and get that team on board and get back out there and finish what we started because it’s just amazing. It’s tough to get people to go to sleep. I would stick my head out at 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock, and there’s still a cluster of people in front of the monitors, looking at images from the bottom.

AT: Once this project really starts to take shape, how will you present it?

DG: There are a few things that are going to happen. We have an archeologist on board and a couple of agencies, the National Parks Service and NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) and the scientists on board will start to develop an archaeological site plan. It’ll go down the usual academic path of meetings and debates, I’m sure. We’ve forever changed the world of underwater archeology already with what we’ve done in just a few days.

On the other hand, we’ll start building this 3D virtual Titanic. That’s going to take some time but the goal is to reproduce those pictures of Ken Marschall so that anybody on the planet that has access to the Internet can begin to explore Titanic in 3D. Now, that’s going to take some doing, but look at all the advancements we’ve had in the past five years even. I’m convinced that if we do our part, which is to collect the information, that the other communities will do their part and get it out to the public. In the mean time, we’ve got the website: expeditiontitanic.com, Facebook, Twitter, NBC has been doing live broadcasts and The History Channel is doing a documentary.

AT: Looking forward to the completion of this expedition is there still more of the Titanic story to tell? More to learn?

DG: Oh, absolutely. People ask, “Why one more?” But it’s not just one more. I’ve got bad news for you. This is the beginning an era of totally new expeditions because we need to understand how long the hull will be around, which means taking multiple samples over many years and trying to understand how fast it’s deteriorating.

One of the expedition members who knows the site the best said he guessed the decks would stop collapsing in 25 years. Then we have to wonder is it best served to leave things, the beautiful ceiling lamps, should we just leave them t here to be crushed by the ship and eventually deteriorate on the sea floor or do we recover them? I honestly don’t know that answer to that. A lot of those thing will be decided on future expeditions. We’re just laying the ground work. We’re making the maps, saying here’s this wonderful underwater world and then it’ll be in the hands of the next generation to decide how to use that information best.

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