Robot vessel maps Pacific underwater volcano

A robotic vessel, controlled by the United Kingdom, has returned from an initial survey of Tonga’s undersea volcano that erupted explosively in January.

Uncrewed Surface Vessel (USV) Maxlimer is part way through mapping the vent or caldera of the Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai (HTHH) submarine volcano.

The vessel, developed by British company Sea-Kit International, is surveying the volcano as part of the second phase of the Tonga Eruption Seabed Mapping Project (TESMaP), led by New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) and funded from the Nippon Foundation of Japan.

The craft gradually creates a bathymetric map of the opening of the volcano or caldera

The data collected so far has confirmed previous reports of continued volcanic activity from HTHH. An on-board winch allows instruments to be deployed at depths of up to 300 meters to collect data from the entire water column.

The 12m long Maxlimer may be in Tonga, but it is being remotely controlled from 10,000 miles away in the small seaside village of Tollesbury in Essex. Everything is done via satellite connection.

In a darkened control room at Sea-Kit headquarters, several large screens project live images from Maxlimer’s 10 cameras. Operators, working in 24-hour shifts, watch as real-time data is transmitted from the South Pacific.

Ashley Skett, director of operations at Sea-Kit, told BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science program that operators can even communicate by radio with other boats in the area, so much so that the other boats will not know that no one was on board. Maxlimer.

“The boat is designed from the ground up to be remotely controlled and operated remotely. So every switch, every function on the boat, every light, we can control from here.”

Robotic, remote-controlled vessels are likely to be the future of the shipping business. When surveying a dangerous area, such as the HTHH active volcano, the remote control ensures that no crew is put in harm’s way.

Maxlimer in port

When not at sea, Maxlimer is moored at Nuku’alofa on Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island

There are also environmental benefits to USVs. As there is no crew to support, the vessel can be much smaller, leading to reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

“We’re using 5% of the fuel that an equivalent manned craft doing the same job we’re doing now would use,” Ashley said.

The eruption of HTHH in January caused widespread damage far beyond Tonga, causing a massive tsunami that spread across the Pacific Ocean. The atmospheric shock wave caused by the explosion was felt as far away as the UK.

Maxlimer is currently on a short break while some bad weather passes through the area. Once conditions improve, the vessel will head back to the underwater volcano to fill in the remaining gaps on the caldera map.

The data collected will help us understand why the eruption had such a massive and violent impact, as well as help predict the nature of future eruptions.

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