Across the otherworldly plains of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, some 15,000 ft below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, are clustered manganese nodules the size of potatoes. The rare earth metal deposits have grown undisturbed at a rate of about a third of an inch every several million years. Now they are targets for the nascent seabed mining industry.
But plucking them off this dark desert is no easy task. First they need to be found. That's where underwater drones come in. Hovering just feet above the seafloor, the machines can record unprecedented details of a surface less mapped than Mars.
"If you want high-resolution information, you have to put the sensor close to what you're looking at. An AUV [automated underwater vehicle] is the best and most accurate way to do that," said Richard Mills, vice president of marine robotics sales at Kongsberg Maritime. His company's creations can relay images with a resolution of 2x2cm, much better than what's possible with a surface-level ship's sonar.
The most exciting future for drone technology may not be in the sky, delivering packages for Amazon, but underwater helping to discover vast riches. The use of underwater automated vehicles is proving critical in the areas of seabed exploration and mapping. Private companies are developing vehicles with better sensors and more capabilities, while the European Union and university programs around the world are funding similar projects.