The Titan Submersible is a state-of-the-art vessel that takes five people to the depths of the ocean, where they can explore the legendary Titanic shipwreck. But on Sunday, June 18th, 2023, the Titan went missing during its dive to the Titanic site, with five passengers on board. Since then, a massive search and rescue operation has been launched to find the missing craft and its crew, before their oxygen supply runs out.
In this article, we will look at the technologies deployed to locate the Titan submersible, and how they are being used to scan the vast and challenging terrain of the North Atlantic Ocean floor.
What is the Titan submersible?
The Titan submersible is a 22-foot carbon-fiber and titanium craft that can dive up to 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) deep, enabling it to reach almost 50 percent of the world’s oceans. It is operated by OceanGate Expeditions, a private company that organizes tours of shipwrecks and underwater canyons for tourists willing to pay $250,000 per seat. The company also does provide crewed submersibles for commercial projects and scientific research.
The Titan is equipped with ballast tanks to facilitate its dive and ascent, which can be released to re-emerge in case of emergency. It also has thrusters to maneuver around obstacles and currents, and a sonar system to navigate and communicate with the surface ship. The vessel has a transparent acrylic sphere that allows the passengers to enjoy a 360-degree view of the underwater world.
Who was on board?
There are five people in the craft: Hamish Harding, a British businessman, and explorer; Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, Pakistani businessmen; and two other unidentified crew members. Mr. Hamish Harding is a veteran of other extreme deepwater dives and has flown to space on a mission organized by the Blue Origin rocket company. Mr. Dawood is a philanthropist and chairman of Dawood Hercules Corporation, a Pakistani conglomerate.
The passengers were part of a Titanic expedition organized by OceanGate Expeditions in partnership with the Marine Institute at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. The expedition aimed to document the condition of the Titanic wreck site using high-resolution cameras and laser scanners.
When and where did the submersible disappear?
The Titan was deployed by a Canadian expedition ship, the MV Polar Prince, to travel nearly 13,000 feet down to the Titanic shipwreck site off Newfoundland. The vessel lost contact with the surface ship one hour and 45 minutes after it started to dive on Sunday morning, June 18th. The last known position of the Titan was about 370 miles southeast of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
The area where the Titan went missing is known for its harsh weather conditions, strong currents, and rugged terrain. The ocean floor is covered with submarine canyons, seamounts, and debris from the Titanic wreckage. The water temperature is near freezing, and the pressure is more than 2,000 pounds per square inch.
What are the technologies deployed to locate the submersible?
An international team including the American and Canadian Coast Guards, commercial vessels, sonar buoys, aircraft, and remote underwater vehicles have been involved in the search for the Titan submersible.
Some of the technologies deployed are:
Sonar buoys: These are devices that are dropped from aircraft or ships into the water. They emit sound waves that bounce off objects in the water column or on the seafloor. The reflected sound waves are then picked up by hydrophones (underwater microphones) on the buoys or on aircraft flying overhead. The sonar data can help locate objects of interest or anomalies in the ocean environment.
Remote underwater vehicles (ROVs): These are unmanned vehicles that are tethered to a surface ship or a larger underwater vehicle. They can carry cameras, lights, sensors, and manipulators to explore and inspect the seafloor. They can also be equipped with acoustic pingers or transponders that emit signals that can be detected by sonar systems.
Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs): These are self-propelled vehicles that can operate independently of a surface ship or a larger underwater vehicle. They can carry similar payloads as ROVs, but they can also navigate using GPS, inertial navigation systems, or terrain matching. They can also communicate with surface ships or other AUVs using acoustic modems.
Satellite imagery: This is the use of images captured by satellites orbiting the Earth. Satellite imagery can provide information on the surface conditions of the ocean, such as waves, winds, currents, and temperature. Satellite imagery can also help identify potential search areas or anomalies in the ocean surface.
How are the technologies being used to scan the ocean floor?
The search for the Titan submersible has been conducted on three levels: the surface, the midwater, and the seafloor. The technologies deployed have been used to scan each level in different ways.
Surface level: The search at the surface level has involved aircraft and ships that have been looking for signs of the submersible or its debris on the ocean surface. The aircraft have also been dropping sonar buoys to detect any acoustic signals from the submersible or its pingers. The ships have also been using their own sonar systems to listen for any sounds from the submersible or its pingers.
Midwater level: The search at the midwater level has involved ROVs and AUVs that have been deployed from ships or aircraft to explore the water column. The ROVs and AUVs have been using their cameras, lights, and sensors to look for any visual clues of the submersible or its debris. They have also been using their acoustic pingers or transponders to communicate with the surface ships or aircraft, or to be detected by their sonar systems.
Seafloor level: The search at the seafloor level has involved ROVs and AUVs that have been deployed from ships or aircraft to inspect the ocean floor. The ROVs and AUVs have been using their cameras, lights, sensors, and manipulators to look for any visual clues of the submersible or its debris. They have also been using their laser scanners to create high-resolution maps of the seafloor and the Titanic wreck site.
What are the challenges and limitations of the technologies?
The technologies deployed to locate the Titan submersible have faced several challenges and limitations in their operation. Some of these are:
Noise interference: The sonar systems used by the buoys, aircraft, ships, ROVs, and AUVs have to contend with a lot of noise coming from the ocean environment, such as marine life, currents, waves, and even the Titanic wreckage itself. This noise can interfere with the detection of signals from the submersible or its pingers, or create false positives.
Signal attenuation: The acoustic signals used by the sonar systems, pingers, transponders, and modems can lose strength as they travel through water. This can affect their range and accuracy. The signal attenuation can also vary depending on factors such as water temperature, salinity, depth, and frequency.
Battery life: The buoys, ROVs, AUVs, pingers, transponders, and modems all rely on batteries to power their functions. The battery life can be affected by factors such as temperature, depth, usage, and age. The battery life can also limit the duration and range of operation of these devices.
Communication delays: The communication between the surface ships or aircraft and the ROVs or AUVs can be delayed due to factors such as distance, signal attenuation, noise interference, and bandwidth limitations. Communication delays can affect the coordination and control of these devices.
What is the status of the search operation?
The search operation for the Titan submersible has been ongoing since Sunday morning. As of Tuesday morning (June 20th), there has been no confirmed contact with the submersible or its crew. The US Coast Guard has said that remote underwater vehicles have been redeployed after banging noises were heard in the search area by a Canadian military aircraft on Monday night. However, it is unclear whether these noises are coming from the submersible or from other sources.
The US Coast Guard has also said that the crew of the Titan might be in their last 24 hours of breathable air.