Alex Mitchell-Morton's Blog

Monday, August 11, 2014
Graneledone pacifica at the primary node
RSN Deep Profiler

An RSN deep profiler is prepared by engineers on board the Thompson to be deployed to study the deep ocean.

Alex with a Velella velella

Alex picking up a Velella velella jellyfish that sailed onto the deck

10 August 2013

The Deep Profiler is a go! It took a little while and some finagling by the engineering  crew, but it’s working. It was supposed to happen during my shift, but due to some communication problems, Matt and I got to hang out and watch some footage of the seafloor with the ROPOS crew, which, to the biologist in me, was more exciting than the Profiler turning on. We saw plenty of sea pigs, brittle stars and rattails, like usual, but we had the privilege of  being visited by this adorable little octopus. Not sure what species he/she is (Jesse and Sam’s bio index isn’t up yet) but check out that paleness. He got some color back when operator turned down the lights, but I don’t think he was ever completely comfortable. Who would be being stared down by a two-thousand pound robot. I love you, ROPOS, but damn, you scary.

6 August 2014

*Warning: instrument explanation that might get a little dry for most. Sorry in advance if you get halfway through and wonder why you wasted your time reading about sensors and inductive charging. Feel free to just read the summary*

Summary: cool underwater box moves up and down collecting water data over entire water column and constantly, which will allow ocean analysis at superfine temporal and spatial resolution

I left off a couple of posts ago while explaining my daily routine at what I consider ‘project time’—the post-dinner hours when I’ve finally shaken off the ‘morning’ grogginess and haven’t yet gotten into figure-out-whether-shift-is-happening mode. As background, and in the interest of full disclosure, I came onto the ship less-than-prepared project-wise. I hadn’t been able to make it to any of the cruise planning meetings, and had finals and finals prep all through June. So without a project, I was a little lost. Luckily, in the cooperative, community-based, long-term spirit of VISIONS and the RSN project, I found out that there was an effort to create a series of videos explaining the networked instruments. I teamed up with Corey, another project-less student, and we did a little research. Of the several instruments being deployed on this leg, we decided that it would be best for us to ‘profile’ the Deep Profiler.

Like all the instruments in the system, the Profiler is the product of engineers’ hands and oceanographers’ dreams. It’s a commercial device that has been used in several locations worldwide, but these models have been modified by UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory to take advantage of the continuous connection provided by the wire backbone of the network. With a battery life of 10 weeks on continuous profiling, the commercial version would not be able to handle the year-long, constant action planned for the Profiler. But since the only reason the device had a limited battery was because it was usually deployed on it’s own, untethered and unpowered, that was the only development option. In the RSN system, however, it can be hooked up to a charging station if it can be refitted with a rechargeable battery, which was was the major change the APL team came up with.  The battery was no problem; it’s just a few Lithium-Ion cells in series just like most computers or phones. The hardest and—in my opinion—coolest part of their effort was the creation of the charging and data transfer hardware. Because metals + electricity + seawater = super corrosion, they ended up avoiding any metal-to-metal contact and went wireless in both charging and data transfer. Both solutions seem incredibly simple, but that’s what gives the system its elegance. Charging is done via induction, the same way electric toothbrushes are able to charge just by being set down on their pegs. Data transfer is accomplished via WiFi, but since light signals attenuate quickly in water, they were sure to leave almost no space for water between the antenna in the Profiler and the antenna in the base.

So these giant yellow pills will be zipping up and down their cables taking data, take some breaks to recharge on the bottom (2600m below the surface!), then continue their trips. The electronics geek in me gets super excited by the engineering involved, but the ocean nerd is more excited by the amount of data that’s going to come out of these (there are three of them). Traveling up 2400m of cable, they’ll provide continuous profiles of the complete water column, measuring a bunch of water properties that will be useful to biological, chemical and physical oceanographers alike. All other methods currently available only give either discrete spatial data or discrete temporal data, so this dually continuous device should give us the ability to study oodles of oceanic processes.

Just look at it. So sleek and bright with all those probes sticking off it? It’s like a little alien spacecraft, perfect to explore the near-alien ocean depths.

5 August 2014

It’s hard to capture all the aspects of life on a research cruise in a single post. I’m going to try breaking it up, so bear with me. At the base level it’s not all that different from college life on land. On the average day I wake up, eat breakfast before (sometimes after) lecture, and do a bit of homework before going to work. When work is done, I grab a bite to eat, hang out with friends, do a little more homework, then go to sleep. Fairly normal day, right? It would be, if it followed normal hours, and if everyone else were on a similar schedule, which just does not happen on a research boat.

There’s a block of time set aside in the ‘middle’ of the day for lecture and student meetings that gives us a guaranteed time slot for synchronized student activity, but it ends there. With the day split into four-hour work shifts, everything gets screwed up. My roommate, Sam, has the 16:00 to 20:00 shift, so usually sleeps at a terrestrially normal time (~00:00 to 7:00, if Sam’s parents are checking in) while I’ve got the 00:00-04:00 slot. Even more than lecture time, the timing of a work shift controls the rest of the day. I’ve yet to have a completely consistent time schedule day-to-day, but it doesn’t usually vary by more than a couple hours. Getting into it was brutal. That schedule I listed earlier? Wake up time is usually 13:00-14:00, with lecture at 14:00. Shout out to Jesse for those wake up calls; sometimes the alarm clock just doesn’t cut it, and I would have missed a few meetings without that surprisingly polite knock on the door. I’m not just lazy: going to bed at 06:00 cuts up sleep bad enough, and when there are engines running the next hold over, the quality of that sleep is very low.

After lecture, it’s pretty rough having to force myself to eat whatever amazing spread Sarah has prepared for dinner at 17:00 when I just had ‘breakfast’ at 16:00, but I manage. Full to the brim with comfort food, project work begins. I’ll on it in a later post, but I can say that I’m working with Corey, who, for better or worse (probably worse) has a very similar work style to my own. So during that evening (to all three of you reading these posts) project work time, we’re getting stuff done, it’s just in very focused, super productive bursts, with lots of tangential brainstorming. The problem with being on a research cruise is that you’re on a boat with a bunch of ocean and engineering nerds, which means that no matter what topic comes up, some discussion will ensue. And, of course, whenever a dive starts or an instrument is put over the side work stops to go check it out.

I’ll leave this post here for now since it’s starting to get into other topics, as has already gotten way longer than planned.

1 August 2014

We’ve just officially completed the first day of the cruise, and I’m pretty sure I’ve already gained a few pounds despite a stint in the onboard exercise room. Having lived had to cook a fair amount of food in a hostel kitchen or a camp stove the past few weeks, my standards have gotten fairly low, but the food here is amazing by anyone’s standards. Last night was a Thanksgiving-themed spread that lived up to its inspiration. Combining soothing waves, Dramamine, and comfort food like that gave me some of the best sleep I’ve ever had; pretty handy given my 00:00-04:00 work shift.

Most of this morning’s shift was spent watching the Remote-Operated Platform for Ocean Science (ROPOS) come back up from the bottom after ~1 hour of seafloor surveying, but I wasn’t complaining. It’s much easier to learn your duties when the ROV is gliding over sediment and up the water column than when it’s making vital instrument connections.