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Wreckage, reefs, and robots: The high-tech quest to find Amelia Earhart’s plane

Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator (BEN) in the middle of the ocean searching for Amelia Earhart
Robert Ballard

On June 1, 1937, a plane took off from Miami, Florida. It was a twin-engine Lockheed Electra plane, which just so happened to contain the world’s most famous pilot and her navigator. Their mission? To circumnavigate the globe and make a triumphant return to Oakland, California. Only the plane and its crew never made it. Somewhere during the perilous voyage, between Lae, New Guinea and a small uninhabited coral islet in the Pacific, it disappeared.

A combination of bad weather, radio transmission problems, and low fuel meant that the last recorded contact with the plane took place July 2, 1937. What followed was the most expensive sea and air search in American aviation up to that point. Tragically, no plane was ever discovered. Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan were finally declared dead on January 5, 1939.

Amelia Earhart stands In front of her bi-plane in 1928. Getty Images

80 years later, noted marine explorer Robert Ballard hopes to find out exactly what happened — and he’s using the latest technology to do so. The 77-year-old Ballard is the person who, in 1985, discovered the wreckage of the RMS Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. He also oversaw the location of the enormous Nazi battleship Bismarck, alongside plenty of other oceanographic discoveries. If he manages to discover the truth about what happened to Amelia Earhart, it would be the cherry on top of an incredible career; the solution to a mystery which started before this septuagenarian sleuth was even born.

While Ballard is leading the mission, however, an important part of the story is being left out in many of the articles about it. Just as Earhart was accompanied on her ill-fated voyage by Fred Noonan, Ballard is being accompanied on his quest by an able assistant named Ben.

Able to operate for more than 16 hours at a time, BEN packs more gadgets than a James Bond vehicle.

Ben, or rather BEN, is an acronym standing for Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator. He’s Ballard’s secret weapon in the search. So secret, in fact, that in a recent New York Times article about the project, a keyword search for “Ben” reveals just one result — and it’s the first part of the phrase “beneath the Atlantic Ocean.” In other words, Ben’s being totally ignored. Such is the fate of robots. No wonder some predict that they’ll eventually turn on us.

Robots to the rescue

“BEN is a robotic vessel with no-one on board,” Val Schmidt, research engineer at the University of New Hampshire and the UNH lead for the project, told Digital Trends. “We program it with instructions on where to go and how fast and it allows systematic, repeatable operations from the comfort and safety of a much larger ship or land. BEN is equipped with state-of-the-art multibeam sonar mapping and navigation systems that allow us to make very precise topographic — in our lingo the term is ‘bathymetric’ — maps of the seafloor, of the exacting kind that are required for safety of navigation.”

Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator (BEN) in the middle of the ocean
Robert Ballard

BEN doesn’t look particularly remarkable. Thirteen feet in length and capable of travelling at a speed of around five knots, it resembles nothing so much as a skiff or, at best, a vastly scaled-down patrol boat. But appearances can be deceiving. Able to operate for more than 16 hours at a time, BEN packs more gadgets than a James Bond vehicle. It boasts a plethora of smart sensors, including (but not limited to) a 5-camera array, marine radar, lidar, and both internal and external FLIR thermal cameras for navigation in reduced visibility and monitoring of engine and compartment temperatures. Despite staying firmly on top of the water, it possesses an astonishing ability to monitor what’s happening beneath.

Schmidt explained: “Our primary research task is to develop methods to integrate these sensors both for operators in real-time and into internal artificial intelligence systems to allow safe autonomous operation of BEN for marine science, and in particular, the mission of seafloor mapping.”

BEN makes it possible to explore the seafloor in water that’s too deep for divers, but too shallow for deep-sea vessels.

The search for Amelia Earhart’s plane isn’t BEN’s first rodeo. The robot’s development was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Coast Survey. “These are the folks that make the nation’s nautical charts,” Schmidt said. “Without their forward thinking and continued support, BEN would not have been possible. BEN was deployed last summer aboard the NOAA Ship Fairweather above the Arctic Circle to aid in the effort to produce updated nautical charts as ice coverage decreases and vessel traffic increases. This was a two-week effort staged out of Nome, and NOAA’s first deployment of an autonomous system in the Arctic for hydrographic survey.”

BEN’s other missions have included work with the Ocean Exploration Trust and NOAA Sanctuaries to map newly expanded sections of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron this May. It carried out similar projects with the Channel Islands Sanctuary in both July 2017 and November 2018.

Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator (BEN) in the bay
Robert Ballard

“Of course, our home port is Portsmouth, NH, and we are frequently operating BEN there, updating our local bathymetric data set and constantly testing and refining systems,” Schmidt added.

The most desirable outcome

The involvement with Ballard came about thanks to the long history of collaboration between the Ocean Exploration Trust and UNH’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping. “Our Center maintains a telepresence console which provides us satellite live video and the ability to interact via audio channels directly with Nautilus operations at sea,” Schmidt said. “There are just a handful of these around the nation. Dr. Ballard approached our director, Dr. Larry Mayer to aid in providing a shallow water mapping system for this expedition. That’s how it began.”

Using BEN for the project isn’t just a fancy show of gadgetry, either. Far from being yet another example of robots stealing work from good, old-fashioned, flesh-and-blood humans, BEN makes it possible to explore the seafloor in water that’s too deep for divers, but too shallow for the safe navigation of Ballard’s ship, the Nautilus, with its deep-water sonar systems.

“Of course the most desirable outcome would be to find a portion of the Lockheed Electra aircraft that Amelia Earhart flew …”

Evidence suggests that Amelia Earhart was able to make a successful landing, most likely near the coral reef around the island of Nikumaroro, in the western Pacific Ocean. However, no plane was seen by Navy pilots when they surveyed the island days after Earhart’s disappearance. This suggests her aircraft may have been pushed off the reef into the surrounding water. It’s vital that this water can be fully explored — which is exactly where BEN comes in.

What happens next remains to be seen. A chronicle of the voyage, titled “Expedition Amelia,” is due to be aired on National Geographic later this year, on October 20. While it’s probably a longshot to expect this tragic head-scratcher to be solved approaching a century after the fact, this is nonetheless an impressive demonstration of how cutting edge technology can be used to add a fresh pair of eyes to even the most challenging of conundrums.

“Of course the most desirable outcome would be to find a portion of the Lockheed Electra aircraft that Amelia Earhart flew, putting to rest the controversy and circumstantial evidence surrounding her fate,” Schmidt said. “But, barring that, we’ll provide the most comprehensive data set that has ever been collected in the many years of search — and let folks draw their own conclusions.”

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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