A UK-controlled robot boat has returned from an initial survey of Tonga’s underwater volcano that erupted explosively in January.
The Uncrewed Surface Vessel (USV) Maxlimer is midway 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 Seafloor Mapping Project (TESMaP), led by New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research ( Niwa) and funded by the Nippon Foundation of Japan.
The data collected so far has confirmed previous reports of ongoing volcanic activity from HTHH. A winch on the boat allows the instruments to be deployed at depths, up to 300m, to collect data from the entire water column.
The 40-foot-long Maxlimer may be in Tonga, but it’s being remotely controlled 10,000 miles away in the small Essex seaside village of Tollesbury. Everything is done via satellite link.
In a dark control room at Sea-Kit’s headquarters, several large screens display live footage from the 10 cameras aboard the Maxlimer. Operators, who work in shifts 24 hours a day, watch real-time data stream from the South Pacific.
Ashley Skett, Sea-Kit’s director of operations, told BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science program that operators can even communicate via radio with other vessels in the area, so much so that other boats wouldn’t know anyone was aboard the Maxlimer.
“The boat was designed from the ground up to be controlled and operated remotely. So every switch, every function on the boat, every light, we can control from here.”
Remote-controlled robotic boats are likely to be the future of maritime operations. When surveying a dangerous area, such as the active HTHH volcano, the remote control ensures that no crews are put in harm’s way.
There are also environmental benefits to USVs. As there is no crew on board to support, the vessel can be much smaller, leading to reduced carbon dioxide emissions.
“We use 5% of the fuel that an equivalent manned vessel doing the same job we’re doing now would use,” Ashley said.
The eruption of HTHH in January caused extensive damage far beyond Tonga, triggering a massive tsunami that spread across the Pacific Ocean. The atmospheric shock wave caused by the eruption was felt even in the UK.
Maxlimer is currently taking a short break as bad weather passes through the region. When conditions improve, the boat will return to the underwater volcano to fill in the remaining gaps in your 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.