In Search of Sunken History

July 03, 2018

Cal Poly student Mitchell Keller with University of Malta and Harvey Mudd College students in Malta

Cal Poly student Mitchell Keller, of Paso Robles, Calif., (left) helps students from University of Malta and Harvey Mudd College hand off an automated underwater vehicle to professor Chris Clark, of Harvey Mudd College, and Kolton Yager. The group later performed mapping a visualization of a known shipwreck, the HMS Maori, in St. Elmo Bay, Malta.


The island of Malta’s 7,000-year history can be studied and admired through its prehistoric temples, Roman catacombs and medieval towns. But some of its past is less accessible, buried beneath the surface of the Mediterranean Sea.

This year, Zoë Wood has returned to Malta with a trio of students, hoping to discover more of that history with the aid of an automated underwater vehicle (AUV) that allows the team to generate 3-D reconstructions of shipwrecks. Last year, Wood and her students found a rare World War II bomber in the water. This year, they’re hoping to find something even older.

 Kolton Yager, (left), a Cal Poly student from Murray, Utah, and Bonita Galvan, a software engineering student from San Antonio, Texas with a student from Havey Mudd College explore the coast of Malta 

 Kolton Yager, (left), a Cal Poly student from Murray, Utah, and Bonita Galvan, a software engineering student from San Antonio, Texas, prepare an automated underwater vehicle with a student from Harvey Mudd College during a day of exploration off the coast of Malta.  


“I’d be most excited to find something from before World War II,’ said Kolton Yager, a computer science student from Murray, Utah. “Ships have been crossing the Mediterranean for centuries, but it’s not often that something truly ancient survives lifetimes on the bottom of the sea.”

This marks the third and final year of a $250,000 National Science Foundation-funded project pairing the Cal Poly contingency with Christopher Clark, a professor from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., and Timmy Gambin, a professor at the University of Malta, and other students.

Yager is joined in the four-week expedition by fellow Cal Poly students Bonita Galvan, a software engineering major from San Antonio, Texas, and Mitchell Keller, a computer science major from Paso Robles, Calif.

Malta is an island country located roughly 50 miles south of Italy. Through the centuries, numerous ships have capsized in the area, the result of turbulent seas, storms and big swells. While most marine archaeologists have explored those shipwrecks through diving, that can be dangerous. The torpedo-shaped AUV, however, can explore deeper depths than typical scuba divers – around 330 feet.

The team uses sonar and a GoPro camera to record data and images.


Cal Poly professor Zoë Wood (left) with Harvey Mudd College Professor Chris Clark working in Malta

Zoë Wood (left), a Cal Poly computer science professor, is currently in Malta, leading a trio of students on a quest to find shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. She’s pictured here with Chris Clark, a professor at Harvey Mudd College, which is also involved in the project.  


Last year, Wood and her students found a rare British warplane that had made an emergency on-the-water landing during World War II. This year’s team  began by mapping and visualizing known wrecks and surveying coastal regions. Meanwhile, they have made some modifications to the AUV.

“The technology we are developing could be used generically for underwater exploration using sonar and video,” Wood said. “So everything where ocean survey and management might be useful, then our algorithms and methodology should be useful.”

That could apply to inspecting oil pipelines, homeland security uses and other oceanographic study.

Each day begins with the team packing and placing the robot into the water.

“Depending on the location, getting the robot into the water can be a very delicate process,” Yager said. “The AUV itself is very specialized equipment filled with expensive components we would not be able to replace if damaged, so getting it over the rocks and into the water is a high-stakes task.”

Once that is deployed, the team works on the digital side of the project, which includes creating photogrammic reconstructions of wrecks they are visiting as well as marking points of interest in the sonar data.

“Most days leave me totally exhausted by the end,” Yager said, “but the work is so rewarding, and the things I get to experience are so thrilling that I can’t possibly complain.”

 Kolton Yager, (left), a Cal Poly student from Murray, Utah navigates an automated underwater vehicle in Malta

Kolton Yager, (left), a Cal Poly student from Murray, Utah navigates an automated underwater vehicle through the rocky shore as a student from Harvey Mudd College and Mitchell Keller, a Cal Poly student from Paso Robles, Calif., help guide him.


Like a movie, he added, the experience is action packed and surreal. Not to mention, they’re working in the Mediterranean.

“Everywhere I go, I find a blooming aquatic ecosystem,” Yager said. “I’ve seen many brightly colored fish, crabs, clams, coral, entire schools of fish, and one small moray eel, all just from walking down the street and jumping in the water.”

Wood has been to Malta seven times in the past eight years, exposing different groups of students to the culture of the area while taking part in a unique project.

“The most rewarding part for me is seeing students grow exponentially when faced with an international setting and real-world engineering problems,” Wood said. “Doing field work means all kinds of things can go wrong, and all kinds of things have gone wrong, which provides just incredible learning opportunities.”

The project falls under the umbrella of the Cal Poly’s International Computer Engineering Experience (ICEX) program, which affords students an opportunity to apply their technical knowledge in an international context, to further their research education and to increase global citizenship across campus.

And the Malta trip is yet another great example of Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing ethos.

“This project gives me an opportunity to go all in on the research side, as well as to participate in field work, which isn’t common for computer science,” Yager said. “I also knew that the people leading the project, Dr. Zoë Wood from Cal Poly and Dr. Chris Clark from Harvey Mudd, both have incredible academic backgrounds. And, of course, you can’t beat the location.”


Follow the team’s adventures on their blog.