When the 790-foot cargo ship El Faro sank off the Bahamas in a hurricane last fall, federal investigators searching for the ship’s “black box” turned to URI’s Inner Space Center and its director Dwight Coleman. The telepresence technology the center uses to broadcast live underwater images from oceanographic research expeditions was vital in eventually locating the device in April.
“There’s some mystery as to what happened, so finding the voyage data recorder could reveal key details about the critical moments before the sinking,” said Coleman, who helped install the technology on the research vessel that conducted the search.
Coleman, the Inner Space Center’s first director, helped to create the center—the brainchild of Professor Robert Ballard —a decade ago after earning his Ph.D. at the Graduate School of Oceanography. While the Center’s primary purpose is to expand participation in oceanographic research in real time by connecting scientists on ships with their colleagues on shore, Coleman would be happy to put the technology to work in future search missions as well.
“We hope to use the technology to accelerate search and recovery operations and make them more affordable,” he said. “If you can find what you’re looking for faster, you’re saving expense and solving the case sooner.”
Coleman also conducts his own research on the geology of the seafloor and leads educational programs to generate enthusiasm for marine science. Last summer, he led a group of oceanographers, engineers, and students investigating the underwater remains of a German U-boat sunk in one of the last World War II naval battles in the Atlantic. The entire effort was broadcast live on the Internet.
“It was a great opportunity for school classes, amateur historians and the general public to learn the intriguing history of U-853 and go behind the scenes of an oceanographic expedition.”