Icefin Robot Discovers Life on the Antarctic Sea Floor

by Holly Chavez Blog

One of the most fascinating aspects of Antarctic life is the fact that scientists are constantly discovering new species. For example, recent data suggests that there is a previously undiscovered species of beaked whale in this region, and it is possible that there are several more waiting to be found.
Icefin Robot Discovers Life on the Antarctic Sea Floor

Icefin Robot Discovers Life on the Antarctic Sea Floor

One of the most fascinating aspects of Antarctic life is the fact that scientists are constantly discovering new species. For example, recent data suggests that there is a previously undiscovered species of beaked whale in this region, and it is possible that there are several more waiting to be found. Due to this, it was really exciting for a NASA funded program to turn its attention to the bottom of the Southern Ocean.

Introducing Icefin

Icefin is the name of the remotely operated vehicle (ROV)that was tasked with diving 1,640 feet into the ocean. The project’s engineers hail from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and they partnered with scientists to give Icefin capabilities that no other ROV has had. In the past, these machines were unable to dive a distance beyond a few hundred meters, but that was not nearly good enough to explore the depths of the Southern Ocean near Antarctica.

How Did Icefin Penetrate the Ice?

Icefin was deployed at Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf, but it needed some assistance to begin collecting footage. The research team made a one foot wide hole in the ice that extended down 66 feet. After this step was completed, they were able to drop the ROV into the hole they had created. From there, Icefin had to be directed to the bottom of the ocean via simultaneous localization and mapping, also known as SLAM. This was necessary because GPS is unable to work underneath such a thick sheet of ice.

What Did Icefin Find?

The conditions underneath the Ross Ice Shelf are known to be harsh, but Icefin captured evidence of a strong and thriving community of life that exists near the sea floor. This footage will help scientists learn about the adaptation skills of the local marine life, and the lessons that are learned in Antarctica could be applied to many other environments in the future. There were many types of marine life recorded by Icefin, including anemones, sponges and sea stars.  

How Did Icefin Document Life on the Sea Floor?

Icefin was equipped with eight instruments for its mission to the bottom of the Southern Ocean. The specially designed tools included up/down imaging devices and multiple sensors. Most instruments of this type are not suitable for the frigid Antarctic waters, but the engineer team was able to create tools that would not freeze or malfunction in extremely cold and wet conditions.


The principal engineer on the project, Mark West, pointed out another thing that makes Icefin stand out from other ROVs: “…it’s thin while still being able to travel where it needs to go. The vehicle has instrumentation on board for both navigation and ocean science.” Icefin was also designed and built in less than one year thanks to a cooperative effort between the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and the Georgia Tech Research Institute.  

What’s Next for Icefin?  

Icefin is slated to utilize its unique ocean exploration capabilities in the Arctic next summer, and it will also spend part of the fall documenting another portion of Antarctica. However, this is only the beginning of the plans that the people participating in this project are working on. NASA’s involvement provides a big clue, and people who are fascinated by the possibilities of space should be very excited by the most recent developments. It has been confirmed that scientists are hopeful they will eventually be able to use similar technology on Europa, which is one of the many moons of Jupiter and has ice-covered oceans that are prime for exploration. With any luck, Icefin or its successor could be the technology that finally provides evidence of alien lifeforms.


People who sign up for Antarctic expeditions will not have the ability to travel to the bottom of the Southern Ocean, but they can learn a lot about the local area by closely observing the video footage that Icefin has provided. Additionally, these naturally curious and adventurous individuals can further expand their knowledge about Antarctic marine life by keeping a close eye on the water that surrounds the expedition boat. After all, you never know what type of marine creature will decide to make an appearance. 

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