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University of New Hampshire robot helped discover 19th-century shipwreck submerged under Lake Huron

In an undated image provided by NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Undersea Vehicles Program UNCW, the Ironton, which sank in 1894 after colliding with another ship in Lake Huron, off the Michigan coast. Researchers have found the wreck of the wooden schooner barge Ironton sitting upright and intact, preserved by the lakeÕs cold water. (NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Undersea Vehicles Program UNCW via The New York Times) Ñ NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. ÑNOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Undersea Vehicles Program UNCW/NYT

An autonomous surface vehicle operated by University of New Hampshire researchers played a key role in the 2019 discovery of a 19th-century shipwreck submerged hundreds of feet below Lake Huron off the Michigan coast, the school said.

UNH said its autonomous surface vehicle named BEN, an acronym for Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator, provided “state-of-the-art underwater mapping technology that was instrumental in the discovery,” which occurred in 2019 but was only publicly confirmed after the recent completion of a painstaking visual documentation process.

“This was an exciting expedition for our researchers and students to be a part of and is exactly the kind of ocean mapping BEN was built to do,” Val Schmidt, principal research project manager and the UNH team lead, said in a statement.


“The autonomous surface vehicle is designed to explore the seafloor or lakebeds, especially in areas that may be too deep for divers or too shallow for larger ships,” Schmidt said.

According to UNH, the 12-foot vehicle is operated by the university’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping. The diesel-powered, self-driving boat has high-resolution multibeam sonar that makes three-dimensional topographic and acoustic maps of the ocean floor, or in the case of Lake Huron, the lakebed, officials said.

The Ironton, a 191-foot cargo vessel, collided with a grain hauler on a blustery night in September 1894, sinking both. The Ironton’s captain and six sailors clambered into a lifeboat but it was dragged to the bottom before they could detach it from the ship. Only two crewmen survived.

The gravesite had long eluded shipwreck hunters. No human remains were seen. But the lifeboat remains tethered to the bigger vessel, a poignant confirmation of witness accounts from 128 years ago.

“The sonar images were spectacular,” Schmidt said. “The vessel was preserved in the Great Lake resting right-side up, masts still standing as though it just sailed down to the bottom of the lake.”


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Travis Andersen can be reached at