May 2, 2016

Funds sought for new robot to explore Yellowstone Lake

Life-saving discoveries can trace their roots back to Yellowstone’s underwater thermal activity and a team of researchers are hoping to make discoveries with the help of a new robot. All the team needs is a kick start.

The Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration — led by a part-time Montana resident who’s probed the lake’s depths for decades — is trying to raise $100,000 for the new robot on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration founder and president Dave Lovalvo says the new machine would be a “second-to-none” resource for documenting Yellowstone Lake. Lovalvo said it can also help people understand the importance of the lake’s unique ecosystem.

“It is our obligation to understand it,” Lovalvo says of Yellowstone, in a video accompanying the Kickstarter campaign. “Because the only way to protect it is to understand it.”

Artist Michelle Anderst created this visualization of the new robot sampling a thermal feature in Yellowstone Lake.

Lovalvo first set eyes on the park in 1985 and found many new thermal features below the lake’s surface.

“Knowing what we know about life in extreme environments, the microscopic organsims that thrive in temperatures that exceed body-temperature, it was a fascinating place to do research because you never know what you will find there,” Lovalvo said in an interview.

A robot was what first brought Lovalvo to the park, hired by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to deploy and pilot his machine in Yellowstone Lake. He fell in love with the lake right away. Even with the 1985 robot’s low-resolution cameras, “the images were just stunning,” Lovalvo says in the video.

He went on to spend some 28 years exploring, filming and mapping the lake and spends part of his time in southwestern Montana.

Lovalvo said he and his team have been limited on the amount of time they have on the lake each year since underwater studies began three decades ago.

“You can’t possibly see every place that you know there is probably interesting activity,” Lovalvo said.

The deeper spots of the lake were harder to reach because the crew was using an old Park Service boat and had to anchor off the bow and stern while looking for thermal features and sampling the hot water.

The new robot will capture much higher-definition images of the lake's bottom than the ones like this from the old machine. Courtesy photo
“If the wind came, it would drag you away,” Lovalvo said. “But this time we are building a new boat that will be brought into the lake in early June and that is specially designed to handle the robot.”

The new 40-foot boat has dynamic positioning, similar to what vessels use in very deep ocean exploration. The thruster system is tied to the boat’s GPS so all the crew will have to do is enter coordinates and the boat will remain in place.

“It is like autopilot on a plane,” Lovalvo said.

The as-of-yet-to-be constructed robot will also be far more advanced, with high definition recording equipment. The foundation is naming it “Yogi,” in honor of the famed cartoon bear from the fictional Jellystone National Park.

Public fundraising is only one part of the effort to make Yogi a reality. Yellowstone National Park, the Yellowstone Association and Montana State University are among the entities lending help. Other institutions have chipped in parts and schematics and all the dollars raised on Kickstarter will be matched by a private contributor.

As with all Kickstarter projects, donors can receive various rewards, depending on how much money they give. That ranges from getting a digital poster of the robot for $25 to joining the research team and robot on Yellowstone Lake for $10,000.

“We are just trying to offset some of the costs because this is extremely expensive,” Lovalvo said. “We want people to understand the value of what we do and help out if interested.”

The Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration’s Kickstarter pitch suggests the microbial life at the bottom of the lake could hold information about the origin of life or new advancements in medicine or biology.

Bacteria credited with sparking the ability for mankind to map the entire human genome was discovered in Lower Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park — bringing historically unprecedented discoveries about who we are as a species, and potentially curing diseases as well.
“Because it grew in a very hot environment, it allowed us to do things you normally couldn’t do,” Lovalvo said of Thermus aquaticus. The discoveries made thanks to this one Yellowstone microbe are currently used in hospitals around the world, he said.

“It is an exciting place and the lake bottom is fascinating — you never know what you will see and that is the beauty of it,” Lovalvo said.

The foundation's pitch says it's estimated “that less than 1 percent of Yellowstone’s microbes have been identified so far and it’s hard to predict what might be learned from those that have yet to be discovered.”

In addition to microscopic life, sponges and crustaceans also dwell in the depths of the lake.

“(T)he lake bottom is fascinating — you never know what you will see and that is the beauty of it,” Lovalvo said.

Although being just one of only a few projects to be featured on Kickstarter’s front page and weekly email, just a bit more 2/3rds of the $100,000 goal had been raised as of Monday.

This is the foundation’s first time using a crowd-funding source and Lovalvo said things weren’t looking good for the endeavor since with Kickstarter, it’s all or nothing for the fundraiser.

“They are well known for people selling things, but we went a completely different direction and based it on philanthropy — you have to want to help for a reason other than getting something in return,” Lovalvo said. “We have way too much in it and too many responsibilities to not be doing it, but Kickstarter would take some of the pain off.”

The foundation faces a self-imposed deadline of 10 p.m. on Wednesday, May 4.


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