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Dr. Robert Ballard: What is Telepresence?

One of the driving reasons for doing telepresence is for years and years, for over thirty years I went down in submarines and I looked out that window. But I was spending the vast majority of my time in the elevator going to and from work. The average depth of the ocean is 12,000 feet and to get down there in a submarine takes two and a half hours in the morning to get to work and two and a half hours to get home at night, and I only spent three hours on the bottom, and if I was lucky I covered one mile. Well, I’m trying to explore features that are thousands of miles long and with this technology we can put our vehicles down because there is no human being in them. They don’t have to go to the bathroom, they don’t have to go to bed, they don’t have to eat. The robot can stay down constantly and therefore we can explore 24 hours a day, instead of three hours a day.

So that technology of telepresence is going to greatly accelerate our rate of ocean exploration. Also our ability to share it with others through telepresnt technology. I was surprised how quickly they came aboard. I thought that there would be barriers that wouldn’t permit them to make that leap. To leap in fantasy, to be able to jump out of their body and come aboard the ship. I thought there would be much more resistance, but as soon as it got going, and as soon as the action started flowing, and the instant dialogue there were no time delays in the dialogues so it was instant back and forth dialogue. The quality of the imagery that they had, boom they were there much, much quicker than I thought.

What we learned on this expedition was you could really beam people aboard. The complexity is to do it now on a much larger scale. The idea of the Okeannus (spelling) Explorer is that it’s out on a mission in the middle of absolutely nowhere and it makes a discovery. The people aboard are not scientists. They are engineers, they are aquanauts, they are there to operate the technology and to make the initial contact. But then as soon as they make the initial contact, they need to make sure that if they look over their shoulder, the experts are there, or more importantly, they’re in their ear, guiding them. So what we have done is we built and tried for the first time, what we call the Inner Space Center.

We are building it at the University of Rhode Island. And the Inner Space Center is sort of what Houston is to outer space this will be to inner space. And it will be connected constantly to the ship and the ship works 24 hours a day, so the Inner Space Center works 24 hours a day. So imagine that here we are out in the Indian Ocean of the Western Pacific and we make an incredible discovery. We make an archeological discovery, a historical discovery, a new life forms geologic canyon or mountain range and we need to get the expert. Well, the people at the Inner Space Center will then be able to call the expert like we would do with Deb Kelly, who’s an expert on Lost City. Imagine her walking down the hall of the University and her cell phone rings. “ Deb, we just found another Lost City, get to your console, tell us what to do!” So she would go down the hall to her command center, sit down, turn it on, put on a head set and say “ So Todd, what do you have for me?” and that’s what is’s all about. So we took that to a new level on the Lost City expedition. Now we have to implement it not for a ten-day cruise, but for 250 days a year, year in, and year out. And that starts in 2007.


Related Links

Dr. Robert Ballard Profile


Please note that all OceanAGE Career content was current at the time that interviews were recorded; however, profiles are not being updated to reflect subsequent career changes.