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Hi-tech robots search ocean floor for ancient shipwrecks

  • The secrets of the deep are now accessible thanks to robotic submersibles
  • A recent expedition to the "Titanic" wreck brought back images showing its current state
  • The cost of locating and recovering of wrecks can be prohibitive
  • Blue Water Recoveries hopes to be able to locate Shackleton's "Endurance"

London, England (CNN) -- Once lost to the deep, shipwrecks lying on the ocean floor are now accessible thanks to cutting-edge submersibles.

Autonomous and remotely operated vehicles are capable of trawling the ocean floor at depths of up to 6,000 meters, to document ancient and recent shipwrecks, and recover key objects.

"RMS Titanic" is the most famous shipwreck to be visited by these vehicles. A recent expedition brought back images documenting the current state of the ship, nearly 100 years after it sank following a collision with an iceberg.

Impressive 3D-HD images of the ship's bow show it looking relatively intact, though seemingly dripping with eerie stalactites created by rust-eating microbes.

Alex Klingelhofer is the Vice President of Collections at Premier Exhibitions, Inc., which puts on exhibitions such as "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," currently on at the O2 Centre in London.

It is also the parent company of RMS Titanic, Inc., which has exclusive recovery rights to "Titanic."

Klingelhofer told CNN that the primary goal of the recent expedition was to "map the wreck, and recover as much information as possible, so that we could really examine what the 'Titanic' site is."

Every time we've been in the Med, we have found Roman wrecks, they're all over the place.
--David Mearns, Blue Water Recoveries

She continued: "A lot of the scientific information and imagery that we recovered during this expedition will be compared with what we already have from previous expeditions, and hopefully we will arrive at some sort of guess-timation of its condition."

The plan to digitally map the ship is part of a virtual preservation project that Klingelhofer hopes will protect the ship for future generations.

Though famous, "Titanic" is not alone; the ocean floor is littered with wrecks that are frequently visited by submersible robots.

David Mearns is the director of Blue Water Recoveries, a leading ultra deep-sea operations company based in the UK that specializes in the research, location and filming of modern and historic shipwrecks.

"The work that I do is all based on robotic vehicles, submarines," he told CNN. "Generally the deep water ones are quite large and you control them from the surface."

He explained: "There's a cable, a big winch on your ship with all this cable in a spool, and you lower that to the sea bed and on the end of that is your ROV (remotely operated vehicle)."

These can be as large as land SUV vehicles, and contain fiber optics that gather data, as well as manipulator arms to physically pick up objects lying on the ocean floor.

In his career, Mearns has located 22 shipwrecks, including major ships sunk during WWII and ancient Roman boats dating as far back as 100 B.C..

"Those wrecks will probably just stay there and nothing will happen to them," he said. "Every time we've been in the Med(iterranean), we have found Roman wrecks, they're all over the place, very common."

Archeological wrecks may be common, but the process for recovering items from them can be fraught.

According to Mearns, permission must be sought from the owners or the descendents of the owners of the ship before anything may be brought back to the surface.

In the case of ancient ships, permission must be sought from governments but, he said, they may not always be interested.

After locating several Roman ships in the Mediterranean, Mearns asked the Italian government if they wanted him to recover any artifacts. He was told that their museums are full.

Cost has a lot to do with it: According to Mearns, an expedition into deep water can run up a bill of between $30,000 and $75,000 a day.

He is currently hoping to get the funding to locate Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship "Endurance," which was wrecked in pack ice in the Weddell Sea and sank in 1915.

"In terms of shipwreck discovery it would be one of the ultimate challenges," he said. "And in terms of iconic shipwrecks, it's up there at the top."

Mearns estimates that an expedition beneath the polar ice could cost in the region of $15 million. "Basically we just need a 'white knight' who'd like to write us a very big check," he told CNN.

But in his eyes, it would be well worth it. "The historic record, and what we'll see on the sea bed -- it has all the elements that will get people really excited."


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