Three months on the ocean floor: World’s first internet-operated deep-sea crawler proves its qualities

Wally astride a gas hydrate outcrop in Barkley Canyon; © NEPTUNE Canada

The world’s first internet-operated deep-sea crawler developed by Jacobs University researchers has successfully taken up work on deep sea floor off Canada. Since its initial scientific walkabout in December 2009, the crawler nicknamed “Wally” has been collecting data about temperature, pressure, water currents, salinity, methane and turbidity and providing a live video stream of the local sea life. The crawler was set up in a depth of 900 metres south of Vancouver Island as part of the NEPTUNE Canada deep-sea observatory installed to explore the geological and ecological condition of the ocean floor and to monitor earthquake dynamics.

March 19, 2010

Wally is one of two mobile instrument platforms in the NEPTUNE network. Its mission is to help researchers carry out detailed investigations of processes influencing gas hydrates evolution at the seafloor.

The deep-sea crawler is equipped with sensors to measure temperature, pressure, water currents, salinity, methane and turbidity. Wally also features a webcam, providing detailed views of the seafloor sediments and local sea life. The robot crawls on dual tractor treads, which allow a full range of forward, backward and turning movement.

Tied via an umbilical cable to an instrument platform which provides power and communications, Wally can be operated from land-based computers all over the world via internet. Thanks to the crawler’s unique control interface, which plugs directly into the web, the Jacobs University research team can receive real-time data and steer the crawler without leaving their laboratory in Bremen, 8500 km away from the study site.

“Deep Ocean Science still suffers from insufficient access to online data. Most research missions are conventionally run with lander deployments and retrievel, and subsequent data publication,” says Laurenz Thomsen, Jacobs Professor of Geosciences. These research cruises are often restricted to specific periods of the year, often excluding the rough seasons. “NEPTUNE allows access to study site data via a web interface throughout the whole year. This will enable scientists as well as the general public to actively participate in NEPTUNE research,” explains Thomsen. “As a scientist, I am excited to start this research, as a teacher, I know that NEPTUNE will offer a fascinating teaching tool for students.”

The world’s first internet-operated deep-sea crawler was deployed in September 2009 to a cold seep site in one of Barkley Canyon’s gas hydrate fields. After a series of preliminary testing, the Jacobs University researchers took Wally for its first scientific crawl of the ocean floor on December 19. During the tour, the team captured images of many different organisms, including red bottom fish and small spider crabs. Since December, Wally has been investigating the study site in more detail revealing new insights into the dynamics of deep sea biogeochemistry and biology.

** Wally’s camera lights are turned on for about one hour a day.
Videos of Wally´s surveys can be found on

Scientific partners
The deep-sea crawler was developed at the OceanLab at Jacobs University. Titanium Solutions, a company located in Bremen, provided OceanLab with titanium parts especially developed for the use in deep-sea regions where the ocean floor contains highly corrosive substances. The Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology supplied sensor modules for the crawler to detect even the slightest traces of oxygen, nutrients and bacterial activity in the top layers of the ocean floor.

Find more information about the NEPTUNE Canada deep-sea observatory and about Wally, the crawler on:

Video 1 shows the web interface used to steer the crawler. The camera can be moved by clicking on the video window.
Video 2 shows the panoramic view of Wally's camera, capturing images of mussels, an anemone and a red bottom fish.

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Videos © NEPTUNE Canada