When it comes to deep-sea submersibles, only Japan, the United States, France, Russia and China have craft capable of diving to 4,500 meters or more.
As befits such an endeavor, the rivalry between these five countries is also deep, but so is the sense of friendship and cooperation in technological innovations.
At the end of April, we paid a visit to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the organization that operates the U.S. Navy's manned submersible "Alvin."
Known as a summer retreat, Woods Hole was still quiet when we went, though the streets on the way to the harbor were abloom with double-flowered cherry blossoms.
We were greeted by Kurt Uetz, Alvin's project manager, and ex-pilot Anthony Tarantino. As soon as we met, they asked about their Japanese counterparts, the pilots of the Shinkai 6500.
"The world of deep-sea exploration is a very small one," Tarantino said with a grin.
It's hard to argue: Pilots of deep-water submersibles are rarer than astronauts. As a result, they seem to share a comradery and pride that comes from being at the forefront of research and technology.
The WHOI, established in 1930, has around 1,000 researchers working there. During World War II, it investigated anti-submarine technologies and, for a time, became the U.S. Navy's de facto research institute. It has steered Alvin, first commissioned in 1964, through roughly 4,600 dives.
It has surveyed the wreck of the RMS Titanic, for example, and discovered hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.
The institute has proved invaluable to Japan's deep-sea program, too. A number of Japanese researchers and crew members were dispatched to Woods Hole around 1980s during the construction of Shinkai 2000, Japan's first proper manned deep-sea submersible.
Shozo Tashiro was one of those first-generation Shinkai 2000 pilots sent to learn from the Alvin team.
"Woods Hall and Alvin were an inspiration to us," says Tashiro. "Our dream was to technically surpass them one day."
It is quite common nowadays for the crews and researchers of Alvin and Shinkai 6500 to work together on joint U.S.-Japan research projects.
It is not just Japan, either. From 2005 onward, the WHOI has also been visited on several occasions by the crew of a Chinese craft that is said to be capable of reaching depths of 7,000 meters.
"They tried to learn everything there is to know about operating submersibles. Around six to eight crew members and engineers clambered aboard Alvin," reminisces Uetz.
The WHOI is also the place to come for any country aspiring catch up with the big 5 submersible superpowers.
The institute was recently visited by a team of South Korean researchers.
"They listened to an overview of deep sea exploration. They were planning some kind of project by the looks of it, though they didn't mention anything about it being a government project," explains Uetz.
The talk among WHOI researchers now is when India will begin developing its own deep-sea submersible.
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3,000 METERS BENEATH THE WAVES: THE RISE OF THE UNMANNED ROBOT
Manned or unmanned?
That was the question at the heart of a public debate held in 2004 by the Japan Marine Science and Technology Center, the predecessor to the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), which operates the manned deep-sea submergence vehicle Shinkai 6500.
Up for discussion was whether to continue using manned craft for deep-sea exploration or whether to rely more on unmanned robots. Opinions on the subject were divided, even among speakers from the center itself.
"Intuition is important when exploring deep under the sea. There have been times in the past when unmanned craft have failed to locate tiny shellfish that the human eye would have spotted," said a proponent of manned submersibles.
"The precision of cameras is far better than it used to be. It's now time to hand over the tasks of exploration and development to robots," replied a supporter of unmanned craft.
Though no conclusion was reached, unmanned robots are now being used more frequently, especially for seabed exploration.
These include subsea robots, operated by remote control via a cable attached to the mother ship, and autonomous robots, which maneuver through the ocean according to a pre-installed program.
Sea exploration nowadays is likely to involve a team of researchers on a ship watching crystal clear images beamed up from an unmanned craft.
The biggest selling point of unmanned robots is the fact they don't involve any risk to human life. Construction costs are also said to be one-tenth that of manned submersibles, which need to prioritize safety.
Autonomous robots are expected to play a particularly important role when it comes to resource exploration, a task that involves surveying a wide area to see what's there. The batteries that power these robots have improved in leaps and bounds, so the robots can now travel further.
JAMSTEC plans to roll out three new autonomous robots between this year and 2013. These next-generation models will be capable of submerging to depths of 3,000 meters.
At the same time, more people are starting to question the need for manned missions and the wisdom of funneling money toward such endeavors at a time of tight budgets.
Manned crafts do have an advocate, though, in Yoshio Isozaki, head of JAMSTEC's Marine Technology and Engineering Center. "Manned submersibles are the products of various skills and technologies. Once these are lost, we won't be able to build these craft again," insists Isozaki. "We also need manned submersibles to demonstrate the power of Japanese technology to the wider world."
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