Exploring Wrecks in the Bermuda Triangle: how Blue Robotics helped Lanai Pro get to Prime Time

One of our most exciting projects in 2023 was exploring and identifying shipwrecks in the Bermuda Triangle for the History Channel.

Sure, it was fun to be on television, and having our Lanai Pro ROV on a major network show validated all the hard work we’ve put in over the last few years. However, like any piece of film, the finished footage isn’t even 1% of the actual project, just a short story pieced together from the most interesting clips to tell the story better. Often the background is just as interesting.

You can watch the show for yourself at history.com (Bermuda Triangle, Into Cursed Waters: S2/E2) but what I want to do here is touch on the story behind the show and how Blue Robotics and our other technology partners and suppliers enabled Poseidon Robotics to turn an idea into a product.

The story begins when Poseidon was contacted by Pricus Marine about integrating a 3d mapping camera onto an ROV for an undisclosed project off the Atlantic coast of Florida. Keeping in mind that we’re a small company with only 5 employees I’d been working 90 to 100 hours per week the last 2 years, it seems like a distraction we could not afford. However, thanks to hard work by our team, we were nearly caught up with design revisions, improvements, and had incorporated much of our customer feedback into the latest revision of the Vehicles. Further, I knew the Lanai Pro was now past it’s growing pains and ready for “prime time” and this project (we didn’t know what it was at the time) might end up being the marketing boost we needed. Needless to say, we jumped at the chance (hoping it would be worth the effort).

One of the reasons we were even able to accept this project was the proven capability and reliability of the various components used on the vehicle. The T200 thrusters (modified with AK Industries connectors) and the Lumen Lights enable us to focus on other aspects of the system. For decades, most manufacturers had to design and build most of the parts themselves. Having worked 5 years as an engineer at Schilling Robotics, I’ve seen first hand how much work goes into most aspects of the vehicle. There are thousands of hours put into the Lights, thousands of hours into the actuators, tens of thousands into the valve packs, and easily a hundred thousand or more just into the telemetry system. Every one of those items is something else engineering/fabrication/integration hours must be poured into. But being able to get a working component off the shelf, such as a thruster and a light, enables a small team like Poseidon to focus on a more limited scope of work, like frame design and power distribution.

This project was a careful balancing act. The mapping camera required a lot of custom work, all of which Poseidon would have to front the bill for, and there were only 2 months to get everything ready before filming the end of June. However, we would at least be able to sell our ROV as having been proven with another amazing tool in it’s tool belt; the Vaarst SubSLAM X2 camera. A key issue we had to work around was increasing the bandwidth. There was just no way the LX200V20 module in the Fathom X would have enough bandwidth with the 300m of tether required for the dive and so we turned to one of our suppliers (Mission Robotics in Union City, CA) for help. Mission provided us with a custom modem that could hit over 95Mbps at 300m. It would have been better, but for the interference caused by our power supply, but even carefully designed filter circuits couldn’t completely eliminate this. We also had to change away from 10/100Mbps Ethernet switches and install Gigabit switches subsea and topside. In addition, the camera requires a regulated 48VDC supply, fortunately, we already have a vehicle power unit with this option.

One of the larger problems was how to fit the camera. It was was just a bit too tall and heaving for the stock Lanai Pro. The traditional way to implement this is a skid, but we knew we’d be flying in the famous Gulf Stream and currents could be 3 knots or more. The added drag of a frame would certainly be too much and the instability in control this causes would severely limit the ability of the camera to map the wreck. Enter the Lanai Pro X: some quick calculations and a late night on SolidWorks and the new frame was on it’s way. We wouldn’t have time to get it powder coated and laser etched of course, but it would be ready in time and subsequent versions would be more visually appealing. Here again, Mission Robotics was a big help because their NavX flight control software is very adaptable and it was quickly tuned to be able fly with the SubSLAM camera, even with full 6 degrees of freedom.

Fast forward to June and I was now in Florida for the mobilization. We had recommended other ROV pilots for for job, but none were available. Poseidon is a manufacturer, not a service provider and we would like to see our customers and prospective customers get the work. We knew this wouldn’t be easy either. 12 hour boat operations mean showing up to the boat before 5AM to prep everything on the boat, continued prep and testing in transit, high pressure while the ROV is in the water because there may only be a few hours at the dive site before the boat must head back to the safety of port for the night. Another added complication on small boats, is that everyone often needs to lend a hand with the boat. After the ROV is back on deck, any problems will have to be addressed on the transit back, and then at the hotel that night. It’s not uncommon during these sorts of trips to put in 18 or even 20 hour days. Having many years of experience operating ROVs offshore, it was fun to be out on the water again. This time, pushing the limits of an ROV I designed.

Wreck hunting is a secretive business. Having worked with Odyssey Marine and others, I was prepared, but it’s still awkward going to wreck site knowing little or nothing about what’s there or why it’s a target at all. There’s also the added bit that we could not discuss anything outside the boat until after the episode had aired (in November). It was a real treat however getting to know the cast and crew of show. They had done some amazing dives over the years and Pricus Marine’s Captain Dave Nielsen’s experiences were no less impressive.

The currents were impressive. One day, not far from Cape Canaveral, we deployed with surface currents over 3 knots, only to find the bottom currents even stronger. Some creative vessel positioning and a large clump weight (improvised from some Kettle Bells from the local box store) still yielded some video of the wreck site, but it would certainly have been easier with calmer currents. Fortunately, one site was under 2 knots and with some skillful work on the boat throttles (live-boating as it’s known) managed to give us over an hour on the wreck site. As luck would have it, the ROV first approached the ship right from the bow and got a fantastic opening shot of the bow and encrusted anchor. What’s hard to convey in the shot is just how much the currents were pushing the ROV around. While a lot of people are taking in the wreck and trying to find identifying features, the ROV pilot has to be mindful of the ROV and getting it safely back to deck. Every protrusion is a potential tether trap and every bit of twisted metal has the potential to leave the ROV permanently entangled in the wreck. With only one ROV onboard, and the water too deep even for the mixed gas divers on board at 650ft, getting entangled could mean abandoning the ROV! Fortunately, we were able to pilot the vehicle back around some of the structure we’d been blown past by the currents and were able to weave back through the monofilament fishing lines to get clear of the wreck.

The last dive, the last of the project, was a great success. As seen on TV, we were able to get the name of the vessel off the hull, and so it felt good returning to deck with both the ROV intact and the identity of the vessel confirmed. But there is a sobering side to identifying these wrecks. The hull we had just dove is now confirmed to be the final resting place of over a dozen lost sailors. Under most conditions in the open ocean, human remains don’t last last. Only the steel of the ship and the barnacles covering it remaining to tell the story. Wood, paint, rope, and even the sailors are long gone. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember many of these sites are the grave markers of someone’s family.

We will doubtless be involved in future exploration projects. ROVs were meant for exploring and as long as we want to keep pushing the limits of design, exploring and mapping wrecks is a great way to test the technology. And as long as Blue Robotics continue to supply these amazing components like thrusters and lights, we will continue to use them, both for products and for exploration.

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Thanks Peter, great writeup. Sounds like fun, but I can’t imagine piloting an ROV 650 ft down in 2-3 kts of current! Did you have any DVL or bottom lock capability at all?

Thank you Larry.
I wish we had a DVL for that run (something like the Cerulean or a Norbit, but it would only have helped so much due to our setup. There are two different scenarios we encountered:

  1. Very strong currents all the way down. This was also in about 650ft of water (but a different location well offshore). The surface current was about 4 knots, the bottom current about 3 knots, and the current seemed to dip just a bit lower midway down. With the boat holding position, the ROV can’t even really punch through the surface current, it just water-skis horizontally behind the boat. A trick commonly used is to take the boat upstream from the target location (about 1,000m in our case), let the ROV tether out a bit, and then either drift the boat with the current (if the wind’s with you just right) or reverse into it and take the ROV down as fast as possible. We were running about 10 lbs heavy on the vehicle, 100 lbs clump weight, and would get near the bottom just before we drifted over the target. The object is to then try to pass as close to the wreck as you can, whilst never getting so low that you could drift under some part of the wreck (like a tall mast). It’s scary piloting and you’re just dreading flying along 40ft off the bottom and looking “up” and seeing something above you because you’ll likely lose the vehicle (and in those currents, it might not stay there for long). At this point, it’s more of a steerable drop camera.

  2. On the main wreck site (of which we got plenty of good footage) the current was between 1 and 2 knots and water depth about 650ft. The 100 lbs drop weight on the tether was enough to keep it down and we approached the wreck on the leeward side. So we were out of the worst of the current most of the dive, but we’d get strong eddy currents “curling” around the vessel and it would blow us off course rather suddenly. A DVL would have helped, but I wanted to keep the sub really heavy so that it would stay put if we got it entangled because in water that deep, even a very lite ROV can pop up a mile from the boat and be difficult or impossible to locate. Being that heaving, the system was on the verge of being flyable in stabilized mode and I often had to switch all the autos off and use a full kilowatt or more to battle the current. I have experience pushing work class ROVs like this though. Doing work like cable crossings in shallow fjords, the currents can be brutal and often the little difference made by switching off all the auto functions and using the full 200HP is needed to get the last little bit of survey before you have to pull the ROV back into the TMS using the tether. In some of those locations, you only have 30min or so of dive time at slack tide twice a day, so staying in an extra 10 minutes makes or big difference.

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In my mind every ROV should have a DVL for bottom lock, but I have no idea what to think about THOSE conditions. WOW…

Good job Peter. I’ve had some of that type of experience, just not to the level you accomplished on this project. Very impressed, keep up the good work and keep us all informed. Would like to know more about the ROV when it’s ready to market.