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Students to Pilot Robotic Probes of Yorktown Shipwrecks
November 15, 2011

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A group of students will soon get firsthand knowledge of shipwrecks from the Revolutionary War.

The students, from three Virginia middle schools and high schools, will be taking field trips to the Watermen's Museum in Yorktown, Va., site of the last full battle of the war. It was there that Lord Charles Cornwallis, backed into a corner by American troops on land and French ships at sea, surrendered to the American forces under General George Washington, in 1781. That surrender effectively ended the war, although the Treaty of Paris wasn't signed for another two years.

During the fray, Cornwallis ordered the scuttling of several ships, 10 of which had been discovered before 2010. Marine archaeologists discovered two more ships last year, and it is those ships, in the York River, that the students will be going to study.

At the museum, the students will undergo training in marine archaeology, culminating in the launch of a set of robotic submarines, which will provide a closer look at the wrecked ships through sonar and high-definition video. Students will direct the submarines to, among other things, create a high-resolution map of the shipwrecks, so that archaeologists can determine whether recent strong current caused by tropical storms have unsettled the ships enough to make them prone to rapid deterioration.

The robotic submarines are cutting-edge technology, of the Fetch class of autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs. By operating and observing the subs, students will learn firsthand about the details and possibilities of high-definition video and side-scan sonar technologies — for measuring, among other things, water temperature, salt content of the water, and amount of oxygen dissolved in the water.

The Waterman's Museum is a relatively new venture, having been founded in 1981 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown. Among the museum's hands-on educational activities is a boat-building program that challenges students to use traditional techniques and materials to create the kinds of ships that were prevalent in the late 18th Century.

The project is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.



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