Orpheus autonomous underwater drone will explore the ocean floor

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced that on May 14, one of its exploration vessels called Okeanos Explorer departed from Port Canaveral in Florida for a two-week expedition. The vessel has onboard an autonomous underwater vehicle called Orpheus that is a technology demonstration.

The autonomous underwater exploration vessel is a new class of submersible robots designed to showcase the system to help it identify and explore scientific features on the seafloor. Orpheus was developed by engineers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and is an evolution of a vision-based navigation system previously used on Mars. The mission is conducting its explorations off the US East Coast in the Atlantic Ocean.

NASA says typically bulky, and power-consuming location-finding equipment like sonar would be required to navigate in the dark and murky waters near the seabed. However, Orpheus is using a low-power system of cameras and lights along with advanced software that makes it an order of magnitude lighter than most deep-sea submersibles.

Orpheus is smaller than an ATV and weighs about 550 pounds. Its design is meant to be nimble and easy to operate while rugged with the capability of exploring at depths that most vehicles can't survive. Orpheus can work untethered almost anywhere in the ocean, including at the most extreme depths.

The project team hopes that eventually, a swarm of the underwater robots working as a team will build 3D maps of vast areas of unexplored ocean floor in the hadal zone covering regions deeper than 20,000 feet. Before the robot can be cleared to explore at such depths, it must be tested thoroughly in shallow waters. The team believes that in the future, Orpheus will put some of the most extreme ocean environments within reach of explorers ranging from deep ocean trenches to hydrothermal vents.