UM Researchers Survey Shipwrecks Using Helicopter-Based Technology

Helicopter Observation Platform to assist with surveys for marine archaeological sites

MIAMI—A University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science-led research team has been awarded funding from the National Geographic Society to conduct aerial shipwreck surveys in Biscayne National Park using a specially designed helicopter equipped with state-of-the-art technology. The project will begin in October 2016 and run through August 2017.

The research team, led by UM Underwater Archaeology and Underwater Exploration Program Director Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann and Biscayne National Park Cultural Resources Manager and Archaeologist Charles Lawson, will use the UM Rosenstiel School’s one-of-a-kind Helicopter Observation Platform (HOP) to conduct aerial geomagnetic survey to identify potential marine archaeological sites located in the southern Florida-based national park.

The test-of-concept project will use advances in airborne and underwater technologies to conduct a rapid assessment to identify potential archaeological sites followed by ground-truthing of aerial results with diver-led visual surveys. UM Rosenstiel School Dean Roni Avissar will serve as chief pilot and UM Professor and National Geographic Explorer Kenny Broad as co-pilot for flight operations.  Bert Ho, senior underwater archaeologist with the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center, will be the project’s geophysical expert, along with a representative of Geometrics LLC, and will deploy an airborne magnetometer from the HOP to acquire the data that could lead to the discovery of more shipwrecks in the park.

“If successful, this approach could be a game changer in our ability to rapidly identify and archive submerged cultural resources,” said Hanselmann.

The commercial Airbus Helicopters H125 aircraft used in the study is capable of collecting critical scientific information at the Earth’s surface, whether marine or continental, and the thin atmospheric boundary layer above it. Fully fueled and with both pilot and co-pilot on board, the HOP can carry a scientific payload of up to 1,000 lbs internally (about 2,000 lbs externally) and fly for nearly four hours without refueling at an airspeed of 65 knots. Its fast cruising speed is 140 knots and its range, at that speed, is 350 nautical miles.  The Geometrics magnetometer is used to pick up ferrous or metallic differences from the region’s magnetic signature, which have the potential to be historic shipwrecks.

The project will provide significantly more information to park officials on the 50,000 acres of unsurveyed area within Biscayne National Park and allow increased research and protection of critical heritage sites. Over 40 shipwrecks are located within the waters of Biscayne National Park ranging from 350-foot long iron steamers and single colonial anchors to 17th century sailing vessels built primarily of wood.

The researchers will use data obtained from previous boat-towed geomagnetic surveys to compare the effectiveness of helicopter-based aerial survey as an underwater archeological method. “If proven effective, this survey model can translate to other, more difficult areas for archaeological survey and ocean exploration,” said Hanselmann.

Additionally, National Geographic Fellow Corey Jaskolski will create detailed maps using a 3D image-based scanning based on photogrammetry, which takes many high-resolution underwater images using a calibrated camera system stitched together into incredibly high-resolution 3D models. The image maps will be shared interactively for student or scientist study within virtual or augmented reality, or 3D printed to scale for accurate measurement and analysis.

The study, titled: "A Baseline Characterization of Biscayne National Park's Submerged Cultural Resources Utilizing Aerial Geomagnetic Survey and Underwater 3-D Imaging," wasfunded by a grant from the National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council.

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About the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School

The University of Miami is one of the largest private research institutions in the southeastern United States. The University’s mission is to provide quality education, attract and retain outstanding students, support the faculty and their research, and build an endowment for University initiatives. Founded in the 1940’s, the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science has grown into one of the world’s premier marine and atmospheric research institutions. Offering dynamic interdisciplinary academics, the Rosenstiel School is dedicated to helping communities to better understand the planet, participating in the establishment of environmental policies, and aiding in the improvement of society and quality of life. For more information, visit:

UM Rosenstiel School’s Helicopter Observation Platform (HOP)

UM Rosenstiel School’s Helicopter Observation Platform (HOP) will be deployed to conduct aerial geomagnetic surveys to identify marine archaeological sites located in Biscayne National Park.

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