Micro AUV discovers shipwreck off Western Australia coast

Micro AUV discovers shipwreck off Western Australia coast

Advanced Navigation, known for its expertise in AI robotics and navigation technology, is making strides in ocean exploration with its underwater drone, Hydrus. This innovative device recently explored the challenging depths of the Rottnest ship graveyard in the Indian Ocean, near Western Australia’s coast. The team was excited to discover that Hydrus had detected a 64-metre shipwreck on the seafloor – a remarkable find considering it is more than twice the size of a blue whale, the largest marine animal.

Astoundingly, only 24% of the ocean floor has been explored and charted by humans. Among the uncharted 76% lie approximately three million undiscovered shipwrecks, with 1,819 recorded wrecks currently lying off the shore of Western Australia. Each wreck holds a key to humanity’s understanding of past cultures, histories and sciences. Since the 1900s, the Rottnest graveyard has been a final resting place for ships, naval vessels, aircraft and secretive submarines. However, most of these wrecks remain undiscovered due to their depths, ranging from 50m to 200m. Accessing data from such depths often demands specialized equipment and training, making missions prohibitively expensive and challenging.

Shipwreck photogrammetry

Small and agile enough to be deployed by a single person, the Hydrus micro AUV utilized its advanced navigation and communication sensors to capture 4K video and imagery simultaneously. Once it had surfaced, the team analysed the data and was thrilled to confirm Hydrus’s exploration of a 64-metre shipwreck. Armed with the wreck’s precise coordinates, the team deployed two Hydrus units for three missions, completing the full survey in just under five hours. Such efficiency is crucial for underwater exploration, where costs can escalate rapidly.

The Hydrus micro AUV is small and agile, making it easy for a single person to deploy. (Image courtesy: Advanced Navigation)

Specializing in shipwreck photogrammetry, Curtin University HIVE reconstructed a high-resolution replica of the wreck using the data gathered by Hydrus. This process involved utilizing the 4K georeferenced imagery and video footage from Hydrus to generate a 3D digital twin of the shipwreck.

“The inclusion of navigational coordinates for geolocation is a fantastic feature of Hydrus. It can’t be overstated how much this structure in data assists with constraining feature matching and reducing the processing time, especially in larger datasets,” said associate professor Andrew Woods at Curtin University HIVE.

Deep-water historic shipwrecks

Upon examination by Dr Ross Anderson, curator at the Western Australian Museum, the historical significance behind the wreck was unveiled as a more than 100-year-old coal hulk from Fremantle Port’s bygone days. Historically, these old iron ships were workhorses used to service steamships in Western Australia. Most of the 15 old iron and wooden ships recorded in the shipwreck graveyard were built as fast clipper ships to ply the lucrative grain and wool trades between the UK and Australia, constructed in the 1860s to 1880s and scuttled around the 1920s to 1930s. They now lie dormant, awaiting exploration.

“This is the clearest and most comprehensive dataset the WA Museum has received from this particular wreck. This type of high-resolution imagery is invaluable for maritime archaeological research and education on underwater cultural heritage. With tools like Hydrus, we can obtain accurate maps and 3D models of deep-water historic shipwrecks and learn more about untold stories beneath the waves,” explained Ross Anderson.

Immersive 3D model of the discovered shipwreck with historical annotations. (Image courtesy: Advanced Navigation)

Uncovering mysteries

The data has been shared with the WA Museum for its public archives and can be viewed in life-size form at the Curtin University HIVE on its immersive Cylinder display. The teams now have their sights set on uncovering more mysteries, such as those of the luxurious SS Koombana – an ultra-luxury passenger ship ferrying more than 150 passengers before it vanished into the swirling wrath of a cyclone in 1912. The teams plan to continue exploring the Indian Ocean with Hydrus in the hopes of discovering more of the world’s best-kept secrets.

Gathering ocean data has traditionally been risky and costly. Sending a human diver or remotely operated vehicle (ROV) down to depths of less than 50m costs around AUD$20,000, while depths exceeding 50m can exceed AUD$100,000.

However, according to Advanced Navigation, the new Hydrus is reshaping the landscape of ocean exploration costs. In this mission, Hydrus reduced surveying costs by up to 75%, enabling the team to conduct more frequent and extensive surveys of the wreck in a shorter time frame. Its compact design (weighing around 7kg) eliminates the need for large vessels, complex launch systems and professional dive teams.

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