Autonomous Benthic Explorer, our buddy ABE

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White tube-like machine with propeller, two red rocket-like top attachement, suspended over ocean.

White tube-like machine with propeller, two red rocket-like top attachement, suspended over ocean. Reference article: ABE, Pioneering Robotic Undersea Explorer, Is Dead at 16. Image courtesy: NOAA.

One of the most important robotic explorers of the world’s oceans has retired, lost at sea after a launch off of southern Chile in early March. The Autonomous Benthic Explorer, or ABE as it is commonly known, had made over 200 dives since its debut in 1994, contributing greatly to our knowledge of the oceans. Dana Yoerger, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and co-developer of ABE, blamed the loss on the implosion of a pressure housing while at a depth of 10,000 feet. The ensuing shockwave likely caused a domino effect on other housings, leading to the simultaneous failure of two acoustic transponders. “For both to die at exactly the same time means probably something very bad and very violent happened,” he said. ABE was unique and revolutionized civilian underwater exploration in that it was untethered and relied on an independent battery supply for power, making it autonomous from larger ships, which previously provided power to underwater vessels through electrical lines. ABE was developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and was capable of surveying depths of up to 5000 meters. Newer underwater explorers have improved upon the exploratory range and speed of their movement.