Not Just a Pet Project: Full Steam Ahead for Schmidt Science Ship

Now in its second full year as a research vessel, Wendy and Eric Schmidt’s 272-foot, retrofitted ship, the RV Falkor, is in high demand and well on the way to proving it’s not just a Google pet project. The Falkor will broaden what it has to offer applicants, as the Schmidts are backing construction of the world’s most advanced remotely operated submersible to be used in tandem with the vessel. 

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, and especially his wife Wendy, are passionate about ocean research and environmental protection. They purchased the German fishing ship in 2009, simultaneously founding the Schmidt Ocean Institute to operate the vessel once it was decked out for research. Scientists in need of a ship can apply to use the Falkor (yes, named after the dog dragon thing in The Neverending Story) free of charge. It’s as expensive as you might think to run a research vessel, around $30,000 a day. Guidelines call for researchers willing to make all of their research and data open to the public, Google style.

(Read more IP coverage on Eric and Wendy Schmidt, their foundation, and the Falkor.)

RV Falkor is already quite the boat, despite being a newbie to oceanography. It has dry lab facilities, two cranes, acoustic research equipment, water sampling tools, and is set up to deploy other institutions’ remote operated vehicles (ROV). Oh, and don’t forget the sauna, lounge, and helipad. 

But now the Schmidt Ocean Institute is partnering with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to build the world’s most advanced robotic undersea research vehicle, designed specifically for use with the Falkor. The ROV will be equipped to explore the deepest and most remote parts of the ocean, like Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. The vehicle will have technology similar to the sub that director James Cameron piloted in his (let's be honest, totally surreal) exploration of the trench in 2012.  

The institute announced the plan for the ROV in December, and one researcher described to the Boston Globe how the addition of the submersible will make the Falkor a more reliable resource for researchers. 

They’re going to get more and more into being a slick operation,” German said. “Scientists who go out with them are going to know what they’re going to get. It’s not just going to be the risk-taking scientists who are going to put a week or a month on the line.

While the Institute is still finding its footing, the Falkor is highly sought after, already accepting pre-proposals for 2016. Some of the projects the ship has facilitated since it set sail include: 

  • Dr. Daniel Barshis studied how coral reefs cope with the effects of climate change in American Samoa. 
  • Dr. Chris German led a team from WHOI to explore the planet’s deepest mid-ocean ridge, a chain of undersea volcanoes called the Mid-Cayman Rise, with a remote submersible.
  • Dr. Kim Juniper led a team of Canadian researchers to study the effects of hypoxia, low-oxygen waters associated with so-called “dead zones,” off Vancouver Island. 
  • In 2012, while mapping the ocean floor near Greenland, the Falkor discovered the wreckage of the Terra Nova, the ship famous for carrying Scott’s deadly expedition to Antarctica. 

Learn more about the Institute and how to apply to use the RV Falkor here