by Evgeni Matveev
There are certain occupations that make you wonder how someone started doing what they do, and piloting an underwater science robot is certainly one of them. A job not many children dream of, but one that is likely closer to being an astronaut than any other terrestrial job. Over the course of our cruise I’ve had the opportunity to chat with several of the ROPOS* crew about what it takes to be a submersible operator.
The original 1985 ROPOS was manufactured in Port Coquitlam (British Columbia), but several generations and decades of technological advancement later it’s an entirely new state-of-the-art machine. The three-ton robot is equipped with over $200K of cameras, CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth sensor), Sonar, a suction sampler, top-notch navigation system, and two custom built titanium arms that are so versatile they can fit a 1cm diameter probe into a 2cm diameter sponge opening – one of the hardest things the ROPOS crew do.
Operating the $2.3M robot thousands of meters below sea level is by no means a trivial task. Although most of the crew are educated as engineers, this job can’t be trained for and requires adaptability and quick thinking. Being a pilot is not for anyone who likes to do things “by-the-book”, says pilot Peter Lockhart.
When Luke Girard started with ROPOS he got thrown right in the deep end (literally), and had to figure how to work on the fly. It takes impeccable spacial acuity, a cool head, and, perhaps most importantly, some strong sea legs. Keith Tamburri, the lead operator, said that sometimes you have no choice but to work in rough weather, so losing time to seasickness is not an option. Early in his career Keith recalls being caught in a storm with 24m waves; he described it as two sleepless days of hell when he genuinely feared for his life.
So, if this job doesn’t have an “entry level”, how does someone start out? Keith first started working with submersibles at 15 and was part of the team that delivered and tested the original ROPOS. After a stint in entrepreneurship he got his degree in robotics from BCIT in 1989, and started working with ROPOS two years later. He chose to work with ROPOS specifically because he loved marine science (and even took two years in college; however, was “asked to take a break because he was having too much fun”). Keith says he loves the technical challenges that come with the job, and working with educated people who do interesting projects.
On this job, you certainly get to see things not many people get to. Keith fondly recalled diving with a team of anthropologists exploring ship wrecks from 2000BC, and on the same dive seeing fibreglass boats from the 80s: a perfect juxtaposition of seafaring through the years. Peter said his favourite part is exploring the unknown and described awe-inspiring hydrothermal vents abundant with unusual creatures that adapted to an extreme way of life.
Consistent with being adventurous, this job is anything but a stable nine-to-five. In the past, ROPOS operations have taken place primarily in the summer when the weather is kinder; however recently the team started working winters in the southern hemisphere. The stretches of work mean leaving your family for as long as eight weeks, and that can be one of the hardest parts, said Peter. When not at sea, the operators are in Victoria, British Columbia fixing and modifying the ROV.
Because ROPOS is a registered non-for-profit all the funds are reinvested in the company, which allows them to keep up with technological advances. In the future both Peter and Keith see ROPOS acquiring a second robot, and expanding into Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs).