Sonar, GPS, Robots: The Science of Underwater Recovery

Robots can save divers time and energy by venturing into the water first.

February 11, 2009, 6:51 PM

Aug. 2, 2007 — -- Sonar scans, Global Positioning Systems and robotics could play primary roles as Minnesota and federal authorities continue recovery efforts today after the fatal bridge collapse over the Mississippi River.

The collapse of the Minneapolis bridge left as many as 30 people missing and cars and debris jutting out from the water below, making efforts to retrieve the dead very tricky.

In this morning's news conference, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said the recovery would include the use of sonar, heavy barges and trained diving teams. Those efforts were initially stymied Wednesday evening and this morning by safety concerns for divers and other recovery workers.

Traditionally in recovery missions, divers were used for both the searching and recovering, but this method can be time-consuming and exhausting for authorities and divers.

According to John L. Saunders, the director of the National Underwater Rescue Recovery Institute, the first step in any underwater recovery situation is to use sonar scanning technology. Founded in 1970, the institute trains divers around the country in underwater rescue and recovery. Institute members have collectively recovered 617 drowning victims.

"Before, everything would have been done by hand, but now the technology is so good we just put the instruments in the water and we know everything that's down there," Saunders said. "We don't have to put the diver in the water. It makes it 100 percent safer and a lot quicker."

With side-scan sonar machines, authorities can look under and around bridges to scan the wreckage for submerged cars and people and also look out for any debris — in this case concrete and rebar — that might be dangerous to diving teams, Saunders said.

"Safety is the No. 1 thing. All these things will make this thing a safe recovery and make it safe for the divers," he said. "You don't want to put anyone else's life in danger."

The next step is to create a map from that sonar scan for divers who can then retrieve victims.

In recent years, sonar technology has gotten even better and is commonly combined with GPS to pinpoint the exact locations, within "a couple of feet," of any debris, according to Saunders.

The newest in search-and-recovery technology is the ROV, or remotely operated vehicle. These underwater-ready robots, equipped with sonar and GPS, are controlled from above the water's surface and can send back video, photos and sonar scans to rescuers.

Tom Glebas, vice president of a Pennsylvania-based company called VideoRay that makes sonar-equipped ROVs, describes them as "swimming cameras." The company's ROVs have been successfully used to recover vehicles and bodies.

In addition to video, the machines can use two types of sonar: scanning sonar, which resembles air traffic control radars — think of a wand going around in a circle on the screen — and multibeam, or imaging sonar, which provides a live-action image that resembles an ultrasound.

The biggest advantage of ROVs, especially in the Minneapolis situation, is increased visibility in river water made murkier by the falling bridge and cars, according to Glebas.

"Typically, in a diver situation, [a diver] is going to crawl hand over hand and is limited to close proximity searches," he said. "With sonar, you can extend your range of visibility … up to 150 feet."

Using sonar before sending divers down will also prevent another danger to divers: pollutants.

"Because these vehicles are in the water, there's going to be a lot pollutants. Oil and gas," he said. "The ROVs reduce the physical as well as the chemical hazards to the diver."

The sheriff's department in St. Louis County, Minn., about 140 miles from Minneapolis, has offered its ROVs to Minneapolis authorities, Dave Phillips, the undersheriff of St. Louis County, told

St. Louis County has primarily used ROVs for recovering drowning victims and cars that have fallen through the ice. Phillips called a bridge collapse over water "incredibly rare."

"Public safety dive teams in general are trained just for that purpose [to rescue drowning victims]," Phillips said. "To get a structural collapse is just a whole different thing all together."

Divers, however, aren't left out of the technological equation, according to Shane Weinreis who runs the U.S. Water Rescue Dive Team, a public safety dive team in Montana. The tricky rescue dives often require high-tech equipment, from special dry suits to helmets.

"There's a lot of good equipment out there that's actually been on the market for a lot of years that will protect a diver from head to toe," Weinreis said. "The downside is it's extremely expensive. The technology is definitely out there, [but] not every dive team would necessarily have that."

Even if divers did have the most technologically advanced equipment, they wouldn't be able to do their jobs without the proper training, he said.

"Recreational divers aren't trained how to handle these hazards or any contingency plans. That's what public safety divers do — trained to handle these types of things," he said. "Without the training you can give a recreational diver all the equipment but it's not going to do any good. … [A diver] needs to be able to handle that emergency like second nature."