ON THE PACIFIC, Day 7: Jason to the rescue

Kevis-Stirling operates the ROV Jason and its huge manipulator arms
Kevis-Stirling operates the ROV Jason and its huge manipulator arms

From June 25 to July 9, UO geophysicist Dean Livelybrooks and a team of national scientists on board the Atlantis research vessel will recover earthquake-monitoring equipment in the Pacific Ocean. Follow tweets and other activity at @uocas and #uoshiptrip. Visit explorationnow.org/atlantis to follow the action live. To read previous dispatches from the Atlantis, visit http://around.uoregon.edu/cascadia-initiative.

At about 3 p.m. July 1, a problem emerged.

Among the 30 ocean-bottom seismometers that are being retrieved during this trip, some are designed to release buoys that pop up to the surface when signaled, marking their location. But the buoy for this particular pop-up seismometer off the northern California coast wasn’t popping up.

This was a job for Jason.

Jason is the remotely operated vehicle or ROV owned by Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. It’s straight out of a science-fiction movie: About the size of a Mini Cooper, Jason is a box-like robot equipped with multiple cameras and two ominous-looking manipulator arms that end with claw-like jaws that can lift marine equipment the size of refrigerators.

Jason is tethered to a control room on the ship through a long cable full of communication wires. When the operator in the control room presses a button or moves a joystick, Jason’s thrusters fire up and he starts moving along the ocean floor, at depths of up to four miles.

Often, the man at the other end of Jason’s line is expedition leader Akel Kevis-Stirling. He is the owner/operator for a marine services company that does ROV navigation.

For this operation, Kevis-Stirling supervised as another operator moved Jason into position at the malfunctioning seismometer.

The small control room filled with ROV operators and curious researchers and assistants. A monitor hooked up to one of Jason’s cameras showed that the equipment was covered with what appeared to be chimera fish and starfish-like creatures called “brittle stars.”

“You want me to move some of that life out of the way?” the operator asked Kevis-Stirling.

As the team prepared to try to free the pop-up buoy, Kevis-Stirling made a critical change to the ship’s position. With the currents shifting, he realized that the pop-up buoy could otherwise have slammed into the underside of Atlantis or its propellers.

With the ship safely out of harm’s way, the ROV operator used left and right joysticks to move Jason’s long mechanical arms, sweeping the marine life off the seismometer. But the pop-up buoy still wouldn’t deploy, so the operator used Jason to give the release mechanism a little shake – and that set the buoy free and hurtling to the surface.

UO geophysicist Dean Livelybrooks, who was in the control room, found the whole experience fascinating.

“Jason to the rescue!” he said. “These guys are total pros, I tell you.”

- by Matt Cooper, UO Office of Strategic Communications