By Charles Loeffler - Applied Research Laboratories, The University of Texas at Austin
An autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) launching is filled with both excitement and anxiety. The excitement comes from the months, or even years, of working on the AUV, sonar, or data processing computer programs, and seeing all of them functioning as planned. It also comes from the possibilities of new discoveries. These discoveries can be new types of features on the lake bottom; new ways in which the sounds waves interact with the environment; unanticipated capabilities of the data processing schemes; and, on the Thunder Bay 2010 expedition, undiscovered shipwrecks.
On the other hand, anxiety builds as the AUV (which is a heavy vehicle) is lifted with a crane high above the ship’s deck and the surface of the water. Then there's more anxiety with possibility that the AUV might sink if the buoyancy is not correct, and then the mission begins and the AUV disappears into the depths of the water for hours at a time.
Ultimately, the voices of the engineer and explorer in your head prevail and the AUV is launched — and then you watch and wait for the results.
There are several steps to launching the AUV. First, a crane is used to lift it off the deck of the ship into the water. Once in the water and before the crane cable is released, the AUV's lifting line is slackened to test the buoyancy of the AUV and to check the software in the AUV (via a WiFi link) to verify that everything is ready to operate. Now the cable is released and the AUV is remotely controlled to swim on the surface to a safe distance, away from the ship.
After a final check, the AUV is commanded to start its mission — and it is now autonomous.