The TITANIC venture started in September 1985, when a joint Franco-American exploration mission (led by IFREMER, the French Institute for Research and Exploration of the Sea, with the cooperation of the WOODS HOLE INSTITUTE from USA), discovered, thanks to means connected to the ship, the wreck of the sunken luxury liner, laying on the bottom of the North Atlantic ocean, by 3800 m depth.
As a result of that discovery, the HYTEC company (now part of ECA GROUP) has been granted a contract from IFREMER to design and build an ROV (which received the name of ROBIN) capable of operating in depth up to 6,000m (a depth never reached by an ROV so far), since it was meant to be a tender to the already available IFREMER manned submarine, NAUTILE, operational at that depth, but much too big to enter into a wreck. It should be noted that the video cameras onboard this NAUTILE had also been built by HYTEC
This contract, which was signed end of November 1985, presented two further challenges:
- The ROV had to be fully operational by June 1986, the inspection of the TITANIC wreck having been planned by IFREMER for July of same year : HYTEC therefore had less then 6 months to design, build and test a 6000m depth rated ROV system
- The ROV itself had to be extremely compact, since it had to be transported by the NAUTILE in its frontal niche (that could be compared to a kangaroo poach), and powered and controlled from the submarine.
The NAUTILE was a manned underwater vehicle which was notably in charge to transport, supply and control the small ROV ROBIN during the inspection of the Titanic.
Indeed, ROBIN was designed/built with dimensions of only 60 x 50 x 50 cm, and a weight in air of only 130 kg ; it was equipped with a colour TV camera, coupled with a still camera (for the inspection task), and with two low light black & white cameras devoted to the navigation of the ROV. All cameras were of the CCD type, a technology which had been very recently discovered, and for which HYTEC was a pioneer at that time, since it replaced the sturdy/heavy tube TV cameras which had been prevailing on the market so far.
ROBIN, the small ROV designed by HYTEC (now part of ECA Group) which took part in the inspection of the Titanic.
In May 1986, ROBIN was ready for conducting trials at sea, which it passed with success, showing HYTEC’s ability to respond extremely rapidly to demands for high-tech systems.
Unfortunately, IFREMER had to cancel the inspection project in June 1986 for financial reasons (for such mission the French Institute, unlike its American counterpart, is totally dependent upon private funds, and could not find enough sponsors).
It’s therefore the WOODS HOLE INSTITUTE who made the first dives and video inspection of the wreck during that summer 1986. But their manned submarine was not equipped with manipulator arms and they couldn’t bring back any samples from the wreck.
In early 1987, IFREMER managed to make an agreement with ‘’OCEAN RESEARCH EXPLORATION Ltd’’, a British registered consortium of private investors (from all around the world) who were willing to finance the operation against exclusive rights on all images, videos and retrieved objects from the mission. IFREMER accepted this deal but imposed that all objects that would be picked up by the NAUTILE manipulator arms and brought back to the surface would be kept by a museum and/or be exhibited around the world, and could never be sold on the market, and ORE accepted that condition
This financial agreement allowed IFREMER to launch a 54-days expedition (with three operators inside the NAUTILE) which took place around August 1987, and was a brilliant success:
- ROBIN explored the inside parts of the TITANIC and yielded photos and video films which have been diffused all around the world
- NAUTILE manipulators arms picked up a large quantity of objects that were laying on the sea bottom and were brought back to surface
It is useful to precise the role of each organization involved in this TITANIC mission:
- ORE chartered the entire operation and hence was the legal owner of all images and retrieved objects
- IFREMER hired to ORE all equipment needed for the exploration : the mother ship NADIR, the submersible NAUTILE, the ROV ROBIN and recovery means, as well as the staff to conduct the operation
- TAURUS INTERNATIONAL, a French management and consulting company involved in offshore operations, who had been one of the initial sponsors, was the negotiator between IFREMER and ORE, and receive from ORE the mandate to control the whole operation.
As a conclusion, one can say that it was a very risky operation, but its success widely contributed to the expansion of HYTEC, now fully part of ECA GROUP.