URI student pilots underwater robots during exploration of Black Sea

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West Newbury resident interns with science team led by explorer Ballard

KINGSTON, R.I. – August 16, 2012 – University of Rhode Island student Maggie Craig has been a life-long sailor, but it wasn’t until she spent the month of July on a research ship in the Black Sea that she became a pilot as well.

The 21-year-old native of West Newbury, Mass., didn’t pilot a plane on the ship E/V Nautilus but instead was the pilot of underwater robots exploring the seafloor off the coast of Turkey.

“The experience was entirely different than what I expected it to be,” Craig said with a laugh, “and it was a little scary. I was flying this hugely expensive piece of equipment that cost more than my entire college education.”

An ocean engineering major at URI, Craig was hired to serve as an engineering intern for the first half of a two-month research cruise with a team of scientists, educators and students led by Robert Ballard, the URI oceanography professor who found the Titanic and many other modern and ancient shipwrecks. In late June, she flew to Istanbul for a week of training and mobilizing the ship to sail.

Craig piloted the remotely operated vehicle Argus, a robot that hovers in the water about 40 meters from the seafloor and is connected to the ship by a long cable. A separate tether connects Argus to Hercules, a second remotely operated vehicle that explores the seafloor.

“Argus holds the leash to Hercules,” Craig explained. “Hercules looks at things close-up on the bottom, and Argus is the babysitter holding the leash.”

According to Craig, the biggest challenge to being the pilot of an underwater robot is making sure to remain at the proper altitude in the water so the cable doesn’t become tangled.

“The very first time Argus went in the water, we were going up to a modern shipwreck with a tall mast, and we had almost no visibility,” she said. “It was really scary because if the cable gets caught, it’s a huge problem. But once I knew what to do, I found it to be relatively easy. And it was a lot of fun exploring.”

Near the end of her 20 days aboard Nautilus, Craig got a chance to pilot Hercules, which she described as the highlight of her trip.

“Hercules gets a lot closer than Argus to the dangerous things you can get caught up on, so piloting Hercules is much more complicated,” she explained. “Still, you just use a little joystick with a bunch of buttons and settings. I had someone sitting beside me the whole time making sure I didn’t get into trouble. I ended up getting about 10 meters away from a shipwreck towering up in front of me. It was pretty awesome.”

Craig said that she enjoyed life at sea with 50 people from around the world. They all had different interests and areas of expertise, so they talked about a wide range of topics, from the Black Plague to climate change. And because explorations took place around the clock, she often slept during the day and worked from midnight until sunrise.

Asked what she learned from her experience aboard Nautilus, the URI student replied, “I never thought I was good at electronics – I’ve always been a little intimidated by electronic stuff – but doing this I realized that I really like the little electronic details that make the whole process work. It helped me figure out that I really like being on a ship. I learned that I know more than I thought I did.”

As she prepares for her senior year at URI, Craig said she hopes to pilot Argus for another expedition next summer.

“I spent a lot of time on board asking people for their advice about what I should do with my career, and most of them said I should get my master’s degree right away. That wasn’t my plan, but now I’m definitely going to look into that.”

As for her future, Craig isn’t ready to make a commitment.

“I’m not one for making long-term plans,” she said. “I have a general idea of what I’m interested in, but I don’t try to think too far ahead. I’d really enjoy working on ships for a couple years after college, but I definitely don’t want to do it forever. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Pictured above

URI student Maggie Craig works in the control room of the ship E/V Nautilus in the Black Sea.

Maggie Craig cleans the underwater robot Argus aboard ship in the Black Sea.

Photos submitted by Maggie Craig