Finally the ROV gets in the water!

Day 5: All three of us spent all day working on the ROV. At this point we’re getting pretty worried. Finishing up the few remaining steps to get the ROV operational is proving far more challenging and time consuming than we had hoped. When we got to Ulithi, we figured we’d have the Ulithi ROV in the water within a day or two.  Now it’s day 5, and we’re working late into the evening, and it’s still not functional, in fact, we’ve suffered some setbacks, because some things that were working earlier are no longer functioning properly. For example, modifications to the code needed to control the video lights seem to have rendered our thruster control non-functional.  At least we got the LED lights sealed in epoxy, so they’ll be waterproof.  That’s about the only concrete progress we can report today.  Our tiny room in the lodge, which is serving as a dormitory for the 3 of us as well as a machine shop and electronics workshop, has become a complete disaster area. Word has gotten out, and other members of the team are beginning to stop by with their cameras to document the incredible degree of chaos. Given that we have to allow at least two days at the end of the trip to get everything rinsed, thorougly dried, disassembled, and packed, we’ve now passed the half-way point on our diveable days and don’t have a working Ulithi ROV.  We are glad we brought a Catalina ROV as a backup.  It can’t go deep, but at least it can do some shallow work and serve as our “show and tell” ROV.

Day 6: Another day devoted entirely to ROV construction.  And again, everything is taking longer than anticipated. In the early morning, we were optimistic that we’d have it in the water by noon. By noon we were hoping for late afternoon. By late afternoon, we were hoping for a dive before nightfall.  Finally, as the sun is about to set, we are ready. But there’s no boat available.  Not a group that gives up after getting this close, we decide that a shallow test dive is better than no dive at all. Moreover, we notice that our tether might be just long enough to reach all the way from shore to a small canyon, about 30 feet deep, slicing through the reef crest near the lodge. In anticipation of having to work without a boat proper, we has brought along a bright orange kid’s inflatable rubber boat: The Explorer 200! We used it to float the heavy battery box out to the edge of the canyon and launched the Ulithi ROV.  To make a long story short, it worked! (Sort of.) We had a few minor issues, like a bug in the software, so it turned right when we told it to turn left, but hey, at least it didn’t flood and sink to the bottom!  And, as it turned out, doing our test drive during sunset enabled us to test how well the video lights worked in dim conditions.

Day 7: This morning, in anticipation of our first deep dive later in the day, we got to work fixing some of the problems that had shown up during the test dive yesterday. We also discovered that our oil-filled battery box had leaked a lot of oil during the night, so we had to deal with that. (Fortunately the mess was contained within a large plastic tub.)  We had run out of fresh vegetable oil to use, so we had to get some used oil from the kitchen. It had been used to fry fish for the previous night’s dinner. Kinda stinky and gross, but it was either that or go without any deep ROV dives — something unthinkable after so many months of hard work and anticipation.  Today is Sunday, so we took a brief break from our work to attend the village church service and see what that was all about. It was a Catholic service delivered in Ulithian.  People mostly sat on the concrete floor fanning themselves to stay cool. Altar decorations incuded an array of large artillery shells from WWII used as flower vases.  That afternoon, we put the Ulithi ROV on a boat and headed out to a steep dropoff near Asor Island. Some other members of the team had seen it the previous day during a reef survey and recommended it to us as a good deep dive site. Unfortunately, the wind conditions were not cooperative, so we had to abandon that location. Instead, we went to the reef dropoff near the lodge.  We had a pretty successful dive.  We worked our way down the wall to a depth of about 40-45 meters (roughly 150 feet). Along the way we saw (and recorded) amazing life, including corals, crinoids, sponges, and a variety of fish. We even got a recording of a pair of Silvertip Sharks, a species that inhabits deep reef dropoffs, but is rarely seen in shallower water. Unfortunately, before we could go any deeper than 45 m, our forward camera started acting flaky — spontaneously turning itself on and off at odd intervals.  With panicked visions of a leak destroying our ROV, we hastily pulled it up and brought it back to our room/workshop for a diagnosis. As it turns out, there was no leak. However, one of our leak detection circuits, which had been too-quickly slapped together in our rush to get in the water, came loose and shorted out against the inside of the metal pressure housing. That lowered the voltage to the camera control circuit board and caused the erratic camera behavior. Fortunately, it caused no serious or permanent damage.

The battery box dangling above a steep reef drop off (image from ROV's front camera)

The battery box dangling above a steep reef drop off (image from ROV’s front camera)

The battery box near a boulder covered in sea fans at a depth of 40 meters (130 feet).

The battery box near a boulder covered in sea fans at a depth of 40 meters (130 feet).