The chase boat making its way through thick fog which persisted during several days of our survey.

Written by: Catalina Rubiano; Master’s student with Dr. Alastair Graham.

It’s the end of my third semester as a Master’s student at the College of Marine Science, and once again I find doors opening to exciting new opportunities to make professional connections and develop skills using cutting edge technologies at the forefront of our field. Over the past few weeks, I have had the pleasure of sharing updates from the Tampa Bay Nested Survey (TBNS), a COMIT project that is combining multiple survey techniques to create the most up-to-date, high-resolution map of the bathymetry in and around Tampa Bay. These maps are of vital importance to the prediction of storm surge and future sea level rise along with how they will affect our coastal infrastructure. And though these maps are key, figuring out which platforms and sensors are best to use in different environments is what will help us achieve the goals outlined nationally, such as NOMEC, and globally such as Seabed 2030 to map the gaps by the end of this decade. This is COMIT’s calling and is really at the heart of the TBNS project.

Testing out the controls of the USV; the SeaTrac team has been awesome and welcoming, allowing us to get up-close and personal with their technology – under close supervision of course!

In many ways, I feel like the timing of my arrival to the college was lucky because I joined at a time when all of these new activities are getting started in the area of seafloor mapping (and with strong backing from various sectors – an important detail). I’ve known for some time now that seafloor mapping is a skill that was worth developing, and my interests in marine geology and mapping fit in well to this field. So, when I was choosing a direction for my Master’s research I chose a project that would give me the opportunity to develop this skill, while simultaneously addressing an important scientific question regarding the impacts of sea level rise. While the current survey does not cover the focus region of my studies (mid-West Florida Shelf), it has given me the chance to practice mapping skills I learned from a summer training course this past August. “Shore support” shifts have involved lab time in which we monitor the live stream of data coming in from the USV; data which includes multibeam bathymetry as well as the occasional sound velocity profile which allows us to calibrate the multibeam data with changing water column properties (e.g. density).

In addition to shore support, I got to take part in the more dynamic side of the work – the field work which involved marine mammal watching from the small inflatable boat (“the RIB”). We tagged along behind the USV which was running along pre-programmed lines, and kept an eye on any local marine mammals that popped up near our boats. The purpose of this is basically to let outside agencies know that we are being responsible in monitoring the local wildlife and making sure we don’t hit them with our boats during operations.


The remote control used to make course corrections or take over manual control of the USV when necessary.

The morning of my field support shift started off with heavy fog. We expected it to lift by around 9, but it stayed until almost noon! It made for a pretty out of this world experience, floating in an all-encompassing cloud that kept any recognizable landmarks just out of sight. By the afternoon, the fog had lifted and gave way to a beautiful, clear blue sky. From there, the day was pretty easy sailing (pun definitely intended ). We enjoyed the beautiful weather, kept in touch with shore support, and let them know when they occasionally made a little too close of a pass to a piling – all a part of operationalizing this new technology.

Currently, the USV is programmed to run on its own once mapping lines have been laid out in a specified area. However, SeaTrac, who built and operate the USV, are sill working towards the point where they can send the vehicle out entirely on its own. For now, the team likes to stay close in the chase boat in case any last-minute course corrections are needed or if the communication equipment goes down. Object avoidance technology has not yet been developed for the SeaTrac USV, so a pair of eyes on the water is vital to making sure an passer-by does not crush the boat by accident (especially when we’ve had these days of heavy fog! And especially in a busy maritime hub like Tampa Bay).

While the USV is painted a bright yellow and has a flag flying to notify others of its presence, it is ultimately still a low-lying target (I’ve heard passing comments that people mistaked it for an abandoned paddleboard). So, when you consider the larger fishing boats and hulking tankers that frequent the Tampa Bay area, it’s easy to see why the SeaTrac team wants to take precaution with its expensive creation! But this is also what makes it a great piece of technology to survey in a place our backyard because unlike most research vessels, and even personal watercraft, the USV can survey extremely shallow and tighter spaces – and do so all on a solar-powered battery!


Passengers on a dolphin-watching cruise gazing upon the mysterious object that is the SeaTrac USV (Boca Ciega Bay).

It has been a blast being a part of this project. Not only have I been able to get hands on experience in the lab, driving the chase boat, and test driving the USV controls, but I’ve gotten to see the enthusiastic reception from the public that this work has garnered. From curious onlookers on the water, to friends and family who I share the articles with, everyone is very excited to see this technology being used in such a novel and important way. My labmate, Rosemary Burkhalter-Castro, and I even got the unexpected opportunity to give an interview to Telemundo in Spanish on the media day that was organized to promote the project!

I think I speak on behalf of all of the graduate students involved in the survey project when I say that these opportunities are precious. Not everyone gets the chance to study in a program like the College of Marine Science, much less to participate in cutting edge projects like the Tampa Bay Nested Survey. We have gained invaluable experience and met a bunch of great people along the way. I’m really looking forward to what’s still to come. In January, Fugro is coming in to perform airborne lidar surveys which will complement SeaTrac’s multibeam surveys. As part of the “nested approach” the two will fill in the gaps that the other can’t cover. For the lidar, this means the deeper channels that are out of the range of lasers, and for the multibeam the limited swath range can be augmented by the wider-reaching airborne platform.

Make sure to check back in in January when Bea Combs shares her experience with the Fugro team! It will be sure to bring more exciting updates!