An autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) is being used by a team of researchers hoping to find the aircraft flown by Amelia Earhart during her round-the-world flight in 1937.

Earhart
Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator (Credit: University of New Hampshire)

Dubbed BEN (Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator) the ASV has been developed at the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping to explore the seafloor in waters too deep for divers.

The project is led by Dr Robert Ballard, the deep-sea explorer who found RMS Titanic’s final resting place and the founder of the Ocean Exploration Trust, which operates Exploration Vessel (EV) Nautilus. BEN will give Nautilus’ crew the ability to map the seafloor in the shallow areas adjacent to the island where Earhart sent her last radio transmission.

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This area is said to be too deep for divers and too shallow for safe navigation of the Nautilus to use its deep-water sonar systems. Maps of the ocean floor produced by BEN will be used by the Nautilus crew to target dives with remotely operated vehicles (ROV) in the search for remnants of the plane.

Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the Pacific Ocean during an attempt to circumnavigate the world. According to UNH, Earhart is likely to have landed her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra near the coral reef around the island of Nikumaroro, in the western Pacific Ocean, and was later able to transmit radio signals. However, no plane was seen by US Navy pilots surveying the islands after her disappearance suggesting that the plane may have been pushed off the reef into deeper water.

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BEN’s seafloor mapping systems include a Kongsberg EM2040P multibeam echo-sounder and Applanix POS/MV navigation system, which allow it to make 3D topographic and acoustic backscatter maps of the seafloor.

UNH Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping has developed mission planning and so-called “back-seat-driver” control software designed specifically for piloting BEN for the seafloor mapping mission. BEN was manufactured by ASV Global, in a design collaboration with the Center.

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