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It’s well known that most of the Earth’s ocean remains unexplored but this could be set to change thanks to an underwater drone that will one day be able to hibernate on the seabed.

Researchers working for the National Oceanography Centre have said that their autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) will be used to help tap into the deeply held resources such as oil.

The Autosub6000 has been able to capture images of the sea floor and will be involved with plans for future deep-sea mining.

“The system is currently employed in further continental shelf operations, and will soon be deployed on missions concerned with deep-sea resource exploitation (seafloor mining; oil and gas),” the researchers wrote in a recently published paper.

Last year seven new licences were issued, by the International Seabed Authority, to allow the search for precious resources beneath the sea to take place.

There are now 1.2 million square kilometres of ocean floor which have permits to be mined, and a MIT paper previously said that exploratory mines could be created before 2020.

MIT also said that deep sea mining could also be an “effective way to obtain a large amount of rare” Earth elements such as metals and minerals.

The AUV also has potential for ecological research purposes.

It captured 189,015 images of the sea’s bed during a testing phase, which allowed researchers to piece together images of animals on the seafloor that can “scale up to the size of cities,” according to Dr Henry Ruhl.

The researchers are now developing a long-range version of the sub, which will be able to conducted longer lasting journeys into the deep.

“It will be possible to run repeat surveys (e.g. monthly) at the PAP-SO site during a single AutosubLR deployment, with the vehicle hibernating on the seabed between surveys,” the paper said.

“This capability will give unprecedented insights into benthic temporal variability in the deep sea, and an efficient high-throughput methodology to process and analyze images will be key.”

The researchers said that the method involving the Autosub6000 is able to provide a more accurate picture of the ecosystems which exist on the seafloor.

Currently the most practical way to create maps of the sea floor involves using trawlers.

By using the camera on-board the scientists were able to identify the creatures captured and estimate their size compared to the pixel size of the images.

Using a camera also allows the environmental state of the ocean floor to be examined which can then be compared with future images.

“This is an important step towards the automated imaging of the deep sea, which is essential for understanding the complexity of seafloor biodiversity and its future management” Dr Kirsty Morris, who led the research, said.

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