The optics company ZEISS is supporting the ARGGONAUTS team from the Fraunhofer Institute for Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation IOSB in Karlsruhe with specially designed camera lenses. The ARGGONAUTS are the only German team competing to win the Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, a contest spanning three years with a seven million USD cash prize. The goal: to significantly advance the exploration of the deep ocean using unmanned, autonomous systems.
62% of the earth's surface is found more than 1000 meters below the ocean. No standard, manned submersible could withstand the absolute darkness and extreme water pressure at these depths. "Today we know less about the deep ocean than we do about Mars," says Dr. Gunnar Brink, who heads the ARGGONAUTS team. There is a lot to discover, including three million shipwrecks and an immense variety of different creatures. "Estimates suggest that there are around 10 million undiscovered species in the deep ocean," says Brink.
The greatest limitation when researching the deep ocean has been the large and expensive exploration ships required for launching such a mission. Comprising around 25 members, the ARGGONAUTS team is taking a different approach intended to make deep ocean research affordable in a few years on both a far larger scale as well as for smaller, specialized companies: unmanned, light carrier boats bring small submersibles that are also unmanned to the operating site. These diving drones fan out completely automatically, measure the ocean floor and capture images of interesting objects and creatures.
The optics company ZEISS has developed the special lenses required for this project. "With the UW Distagon 2.8/12, we built a lens that can withstand the extreme conditions in the deep ocean," says Till W. Bleibaum, who is responsible for the ARGGONAUTS project at ZEISS. "The lens must be extremely reliable and sturdy, while the individual parts must remain firmly in place." Unlike what you find on standard camera lenses, Bleibaum and his team decided on a fixed aperture and a lens focus that cannot be moved. "This way we ensure that, in the event of abrupt movements and vibrations, no optical element shifts and the lens always delivers the same excellent image quality." ZEISS also tailored the optical design to accommodate the conditions deep below the ocean surface. Development took more than six months. "Our lenses were used during the first moon landing, and now we are pleased to make an important contribution to deep ocean exploration with our optical knowhow," says Bleibaum. "We are very excited to see what our lenses capture down below."
Following successful initial system tests in an excavated lake and in the Baltic Sea, the ARGGONAUTS team is currently preparing for the first big field test: in the middle of November 2017, the ARGGONAUTS will travel with three diving drones and the same number of carrying boats to Laredo in northern Spain. There the systems will capture 70 square kilometers of the ocean floor as part of a 16-hour deployment. Once this is completed, one of the required performance parameters for the XPRIZE will have been fulfilled. The team can then breathe a sigh of relief as they await the upcoming evaluation by the competition jurors.
This step is followed by the invitation to the grand finale: scheduled for September 2018, the ten best teams will compete directly with each other in a field test. There the drones must investigate an unexplored area of the ocean floor 4000 meters below sea level and provide high-resolution photographs of interesting archeological, biological or geological features. The winning team will receive four million dollars in prize money.