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Arctic scientists test drive underwater drone in Vermont

  • From left, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researchers Lee Freitag, Kevin DuCharme, Jake Perron and Eric Gallimore prepare to launch their autonomous underwater vehicle, center, at their camp on Willoughby Lake on Friday, March 19, 2021. (VtDigger - Justin Trombly) VtDigger photographs — Justin Trombly

  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researcher Eric Gallimore uses a laptop to launch an autonomous underwater vehicle below the ice of Willoughby Lake on Friday, March 19, 2021. (VtDigger- Justin Trombly)

  • Researchers can track the location of their device as it travels underneath the ice of Willoughby Lake using this computer program. (VtDigger - Justin Trombly)

Published: 3/22/2021 8:38:00 PM
Modified: 3/22/2021 8:37:57 PM

ON WILLOUGHBY LAKE — Eric Gallimore squatted above the ice, bulky laptop in hand.

In an oblong hole before him, cut with a chainsaw, floated the device he would soon launch: REMUS 600, a 16-foot-long underwater vehicle programmed to navigate the surface below Willoughby Lake.

Gallimore is an engineer with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, an ocean research nonprofit based in Massachusetts. For about three weeks, he has led a team of scientists working on the Orleans County lake.

The goal? To test their robotic vehicle before deploying it in the Arctic.

The drone is a “pickup truck for science,” Gallimore said Friday afternoon, explaining that the torpedo-like device can be mounted with sensors to measure the ice from below, take the temperature of the water and more.

He and a rotating team of four or five researchers have spent each day at their impromptu camp on the ice, a little less than a mile from land, working out of a yellow tent. There, they use a metal gantry to raise and lower the REMUS as it runs preprogrammed missions.

While staying at the shoreside WilloughVale Inn, the team members have been focused on seeing if their device works. Data collected from its sensors will ultimately allow researchers to map the underside of ice.

“We’ll be able to see how things change,” Gallimore said.

A lot of ice mapping is based on top-down data — measurements of ice from its surface. This new technology would allow researchers to gain a fuller picture of ice’s thickness and how it’s moving.

Willoughby Lake is known more as a tourist hotspot than a sought-after site for scientists. Visitors travel up to the Northeast Kingdom to see its mountain-framed, crystalline water.

But for Gallimore and his crew, the frozen lake has proven an ideal environment for the REMUS’ trial run.

“It’s deep; it actually freezes over,” he said.

The research group scouted lakes across the United States before settling on Willoughby. It’s the deepest lake fully within the state, reaching a maximum depth of about 100 meters. And the short distance from home base — a four-and-a-half-hour drive — made the location especially convenient.

“We could create a little bubble here,” said Lee Freitag, the engineer overseeing the expedition.

The relative proximity to the Massachusetts headquarters meant the team wouldn’t need to fly, he said, so members could avoid COVID-19 quarantine procedures.

The team had been interested in running tests on a frozen lake for more than a year, Gallimore said, and the current lake trip is the first the oceanography institute has done with an underwater vehicle this large.

Lakes offer fewer risks than the Arctic Ocean. If the team lost the vehicle under the ice on Willoughby, the worst-case scenario would be having to wait until the ice melted in the spring to get it back.

In the ocean, the device would be lost for good.

And the effort needed to deploy the drone is far less on a lake, Gallimore said. The team needed only a chainsaw to cut the rough, rectangular hole for the vehicle to launch from — a decidedly easier process than cutting through Arctic ice. Knowing the vehicle can be recovered if lost, the group has also been able to be more daring in its trials, he said.

The team’s research in Vermont has implications for their studies in the Arctic, particularly related to climate change.

“This is a key piece of understanding what’s happening,” Gallimore said.

Scientists know ice is changing, he said. “And it’d be good to know more about how.”

The team planned to pack up shop Sunday or Monday because of the weather’s getting warmer.

But their findings will help streamline the real mission, in the Arctic, come fall. The device has a unique application, Gallimore said: The team plans to deploy it for more than a year in the frigid ocean to gain a long-term picture of how the Arctic ice changes.

“Even if we had to leave tomorrow, I would call this a complete success,” the expedition leader said.

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