Adrian Round of Ocean Networks Canada describes Wally the Benthic Crawler, one of two such undersea robots remotely operated by German scientists. (Hugo Wong/News Staff)

Ocean Networks Canada and ROPOS sub work together

Tour of Industry on the Saanich Peninsula: Part two

The Saanich Peninsula is home to many businesses, some well-known, others less so. They all contribute to the local economy, so the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce featured both in their annual Tour of Industry, which happened on Friday, January 26.

This is the second in a series.

In Adrian Round’s opinion, putting objects into space is easy. It is a vacuum, after all. As director of observatory operations for Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), he thinks the sea is less forgiving. Equipment could be in boiling, mineral-rich salt water for years at a time and if it breaks, a scientist would have to wait months before a repair is feasible. Failure is not an option.

ONC is UVic-affiliated not-for-profit that runs underwater observatories. Established in 2007, their VENUS and NEPTUNE arrays off the B.C. coast collect data on earthquakes, tsunamis, climate change and pollution. Their hydrophones pick up whale songs so scientists can track their movements and understand their behaviour. The data collected also has implications for industry and Arctic sovereignty.

Besides their cabled observatories, ONC sensors are also aboard several BC Ferries vessels. Round said it took a lot of effort to convince BC Ferries to let them drill a hole in the bottom of their ships, but now data from the Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay, Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen, and Duke Point-Tsawwassen routes help scientists determine the health of the ocean and its marine species.

During a tour of Saanich Peninsula industries, Round opened up their facility in the Marine Technology Centre, a UVic-affiliated property near the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences on West Saanich Road. Outside, there is a pile of rusty train wheels, which Round said was an environmentally benign way to weigh down equipment on the sea floor. A pool with a crane serves as a testing area for equipment. Inside, cables snake across floors and crates of sensitive undersea instruments were waiting to be shipped to clients.

Round showed the group a set of wet-mate connectors, originally developed for the oil and gas industry, that allow armoured, high-speed data lines to be connected in salt water. They range from $40,000 for copper-based tech to $100,000 each for fibre-optic speed.

In another building, a technician was busy repairing Wally the Benthic Crawler. It was in pieces, wires exposed, and its rubber treads were peeling apart from many crawls on the sea floor. Both Wallys (one is at work while the other is in the shop) are controlled by a research team in Bremen, Germany, one of the many ways that the Internet has revolutionized science.

Previously, scientists had to book time on research vessels to collect data, which cost tens of thousands of dollars per day. With underwater observatories, scientists can do research from the comfort of home, using data collected 24 hours a day, all year long rather than in two-week windows. The torrent of raw data (280 GB per day) is available for free online, and many citizen scientists help analyze the massive quantity of information.

When ONC’s instruments need servicing, they call the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility, a federal not-for-profit and their next-door neighbour at the Marine Technology Centre. They operate ROPOS, a yellow remote-operated vehicle (ROV) that carries sensors, cutters, cameras and whatever else scientists bolt on. It is launched with a special ship-mounted crane which absorbs stomach-churning swells to keep the ROV stable. CSSF, which eschews resource-extraction work, is instead hired by governments and researchers around the world for projects with scientific or social value. ROPOS assisted in the Queen of the North investigation, and they have recovered a data recorder from a downed CF-18.

Douglas Bancroft, president and CEO of CSSF, emphasized that skilled operators and engineers are responsible for its success.

Bancroft showed the group a video of CSSF crew members recovering ROPOS with their crane. It was a night recovery, and several crew were standing at the stern of the ship, unmoving as cold water rushed onto the deck in huge swells. Over the radio, an operator was quietly asking for fine adjustments here or there. Bancroft was proud of how calm they were. “No swearing, no shouting, nothing.”

Pick up next week’s Peninsula News Review for an inside look at other local businesses: Philbrook’s Boatyard and Applied Bio-nomics.

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