Palo Alto Weekly: Local students 'drive' undersea vehicle
Publication Date: Jan 19, 1994

TECHNOLOGY: Local students 'drive' undersea vehicle

NASA technology enables East Palo Alto kids to operate Antarctic ocean explorer

Elizabeth Darling

The bright blue television monitor flickered, and suddenly, there were starfish, sea sponges, coral and shimmering jellyfish flashing on the screen. Slowly, the Mars One mini-submarine moved up and down, its video camera transmitting images from 100 feet under the Antarctic Sea, to a satellite, and to a receiver at NASA Ames Research Center. Operator Joseph Hill, a seventh-grader at Ronald McNair School in East Palo Alto, slowly moved the joystick, allowing the rover to lurch forward a bit to get a closer look at some rocks and coral. Hill and classmate Catarino Bautista, along with three other students, got the chance to actually "drive" the sea-exploring vehicle 11,000 miles away, 150 feet under the sea and beneath a 15-foot layer of ice under McMurdo Sound in Antarctica.

The "electronic field trip" was part of a series of "Live From Other Worlds" interactive television shows in which students from around the country can question NASA scientists on live television.

The technology used is called "telepresence," in which sound, video, and other sensors are used to transmit as realistic an image as possible. The technology also incorporates virtual reality, in which a computer generates real-life images based on readings and measurements from a remote device.

"We don't want to just look around, we want to interact with the environment," said NASA engineer Daryl Rasmussen. The rover is part of a two-month NASA research project in Antarctica preparing scientists for a mission to Mars using a similar remotely operated vehicle. The technology enables NASA to explore dangerous territory that people cannot go to or spend much time in. Up until now, divers have explored Antarctica, but are only able to stay under water about 30 minutes before they and their equipment begin to freeze in the 29-degree water.

The technology is not only applicable to outer space or to under the sea, but to places such as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union.

But besides NASA, Rasmussen and other researchers see a more widespread use for the technology. "Someday I think these technologies will be available in the classroom," he said. "This is a very generic kind of technology to use where we don't want to put people."

It takes slightly less than one second for the joystick to convey directions to the sea rover and for the vehicle, which is about the size of a small table, to respond.

"It felt pretty good. It's where no diver had been before," said Joseph of his experience operating the vehicle. "This was real life," he said, when adults tried to compare it to a Nintendo game. "It kind of felt like I was there because I was the one controlling it." 

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