There's been an interesting debate going on in the media between two ocean exploration giants: Bob Ballard and James Cameron. James Cameron fired back about Bob Ballard's belief that we need to focus exclusively on ROVs and AUVs in a Newsweek article, saying "the quickest way to get even less interest and engagement is to take human explorers out of the vehicles, and have it all done robotically."
In my opinion, the most thoughtful argument was put forth by OpenROVer Andrew David Thaler.
In the end, the question of whether deep-sea exploration proceeds with human-occupied or remotely-operated vehicles is a false one. From behind a 4-inch quartz plate or an HD monitor, the operator is still a world away from the deep ecosystems we explore. I was there, in New Zealand, when Cameron presented the results of his historic descent. During the majority of the dive, Cameron operated his sub from a “virtual viewport”–a monitor hooked up to several external video cameras. Even the Deepsea Challenger website reveals that “inches from the pilot’s face a screen projects images captured by a Red Epic 5K camera that generates a wide-angle view—better than what the pilot could see with his eyes—from the narrow end of the sphere’s cone-shaped window.” This statement gets to the heart of my frustration–all submersibles are ROV’s, the only difference is tether length.
Ocean exploration, especially deep ocean exploration is struggling in the United States. We are losing submersibles, but we are also losing ROV’s, research vessels, even entire oceanography departments. Amidst all of this, we are also losing sight of the larger picture. Technology doesn’t create explorers, explorers create technology. Any tool, from Wormcam to Alvin, that provides a glimpse into the wonderful unknown, is a tool worth having.
It is the ocean that inspires us. Everything else is hardware.
I also agree with what Eric Stackpole wrote on Facebook:
I think the best move forward ocean exploration can take is to make it accessible to everyone. Even if ROVs can't replace actually being there in person, they are a tool which allows us to travel further down the road of curiosity. A kid may want to be an astronaut, but whether or not that happens, giving that kid a telescope will make looking at the night sky a lot more meaningful.
I've got an idea: DIY, Open-Source Manned Submersibles! I think this guy in China is on to something. ;)