Engineering 101

AI, Underwater Drone Explores the World’s Largest Subterranean Lake Farther Than Humans Ever Have

For over 30 years, leading cave divers have attempted to further explore the full extent of the world’s largest subterranean lake at Dragon’s Breath Cave, gigantic water-filled cavern beneath the Kalahari Desert, but have been repeatedly thwarted by the significant water depth.

Now, an international team of robotics engineers and divers has successfully explored Dragon’s Breath Cave using the SUNFISH Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, an AI-controlled, underwater drone.

With the help of the robots, they explored Dragon’s Breath and two other deep cave diving sites in Northern Namibia, a feat that surpassed significant efforts from human divers to explore and map these water-filled caverns.

A team, led by explorer and robotics systems designer Vickie Siegel, applied the world’s most intelligent underwater drone to the task. Developed by Stone Aerospace of Austin, Texas, the SUNFISH AUV is uniquely maneuverable and precise: it can hover, fly upside down, do barrel rolls, and pirouette. It navigates without GPS, radio, or any other outside reference and can produce detailed 3D maps of underwater surfaces using a sonar mapping sensor.

Image via Stone Aerospace

The expedition began at Lake Guinas, an open-air cenote. The maps generated by Sunfish defined the cenote to have an hour-glass shape nearly 300 meters long and 175 meters wide at the bottom, with a depth of 133 meters and continued to two additional and challenging sites.

During the month-long expedition, the team produced complete 3D maps of the Dragon’s Breath, Guinas, and Harasib which may be used by geologists and resource managers to better understand the hydrology of this extremely arid land and by divers wishing to visit the sites.

“We came to Namibia hoping to understand Dragon’s Breath better,” said Siegel, the expedition leader. “In the end, we completely explored and mapped three enigmatic dive sites that were considered the deep frontier.” The SUNFISH explorations definitively answered questions left unresolved by previous divers. “SUNFISH is the first autonomous system to truly explore a totally unknown place inside the Earth.”

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