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Computer Modeling May Help Close Chapter in U.S. Naval History
February 26, 2007

A coalition of scientists, historians, and nations are getting closer than ever before to locating the shipwrecked remains of the Bonhomme Richard, one of the most famous ships in U.S. history using computer modeling technology provided by Rhode Island company Applied Science Associates.

The Bonhomme Richard, captained by American naval hero John Paul Jones, sank in the North Sea in 1779, after claiming victory over the British ship HMS Serapis in one of the most pivotal battles of the Revolutionary War. The shipwreck search effort is organized by the nonprofit Ocean Technology Foundation (OTF) in Groton, Connecticut, and the Naval Historical Center (NHC) in Washington, D.C. As part of the search efforts, OTF brought Applied Science Associates (ASA) and JMS Naval Architects & Salvage Engineers onto the project to help pinpoint the wreck site.

“What we needed to do existed in two separate software programs, so ASA built us a hybrid application—combining their oil spill prediction software and their Coast Guard search and rescue software,” says Rick Fernandes, a naval graphics expert at JMS aiding in the project. “The software uses physical laws, as well as tidal and wind data from the period, times and locations given by eyewitnesses,” to plot the most probable resting place of the vessel. Eric Comerma, a Ph.D. senior researcher at ASA, led the complex challenge of data integration into a geographical information systems (GIS) framework and he insists that “collaborating with this dedicated team in the search for the Bonhomme Richard is such fulfilling work because it is both challenging as well as historically significant.”

Melissa Ryan, OTF’s project manager for the expedition, said of the modeling techniques used in the search, “As far as we know, no one has ever attempted to input as much historical data before.” The data include details given by people who witnessed the battle from afar and by sailors on both the U.S. and British sides of the fight. The famous battle took place off a spit of land named Flamborough Head and was seen by hundreds on shore.

Fernandes said the ASA modeling tool generates a “probability matrix” from the huge amounts of data it processes. Users get a chart and visual of the search area and the tracks of a drifting object representing Jones’ sinking ship. Based on the tracks, the survey vessel will be able to sweep the probable area where the Bonhomme Richard lies.

Planned for summer 2007, the team will conduct more surveys of the ocean floor using a magnetometer, a sonar system, and a Remotely Operated Vehicle, a type of robotic underwater camera. Applying this high-tech equipment, the OTF survey team will conduct close-up investigations of five possible wreck sites that the teams have narrowed the search to. JMS and ASA’s computer modeling work enabled the promising results from the OTF’s 21-day survey during the summer of 2006. “When we started this project, finding the Bonhomme Richard seemed like the proverbial needle in the haystack,” said Dr. Robert Neyland, head of the NHC’s Underwater Archeology Branch. “However, after our experience surveying last summer and looking at the quality of the data collected, it might be comparable to a needle in a snow ball—one that is melting away through the application of science and technology. We have used computerized drift modeling, state of the art remote sensing equipment, and Geographic Information Systems to manipulate all of the data and pinpoint likely search areas and targets.”

The OTF and NHC have set up a Web site, that provides more details on the search effort.

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