Going Underwater

NMC’s Sonar Training Heralded By Marine Industry Leaders

Traverse City’s greatest attractor is its unparalleled, vibrant views of rich, teal waters. However, not everyone who travels here to the bay spends their time looking above the water.

Recently, more than 20 marine industry professionals from around the country attended a unique sonar training course at Northwestern Michigan College. They learned advanced skills on sonar imaging equipment – equipment which is fast becoming the standard for underwater visualization and used for everything from infrastructure inspection to new construction.

These tools, such as the $30,000 Kongsberg Mesotech Scanning Sonar system used extensively in the course, are often far superior to human divers.

“It can do everything from finding bodies to 3D profiling to visualization of structures,“ said Mark Atherton, one of the course’s instructors.

“Divers would potentially be working in completely black water using their hands to tactically figure out if there’s cracks or holes [in infrastructure],” said Hans VanSumeren, director of NMC’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute (GLWSI).

He explained manually checking for structural damage can be costly, time consuming and in some cases dangerous. Using sonar systems, which can be placed on the lake floor, can negate many of these challenges.

Added Atherton, “The instrumentation essentially strips away the water and gives an acoustic image of what’s there, not unlike a photograph. Irrespective of the water clarity, one can see what’s down there. It gives us the underwater eyes.”


The sonar equipment can also safely and cost effectively be used to navigate potentially treacherous semi-submerged structures.

“It allows us to go into power plants, without shutting them down, and look at intakes and structures and see whether there are obstructions or there are sediments building up,” Atherton said.

Another of the instructors, Dan Vasey, spoke to NMC’s facilities and location as important factors in the training. Vasey, a 30-year veteran of underwater operations, teaches at Santa Barbara City College. Even at his own school, which is situated right on the California coastline, he admits direct water access can be a challenge.

VanSumeren seconded Vasey’s assessment of NMC’s optimal conditions for marine technology training.

“There are very few universities around the country that do this type of training, but [that] also have the facilities located right on the water where they’re accessible,” VanSumeren explained.

“Students get access to equipment many universities can’t get,” he continued. “We have facilities even the industry people don’t have.”

“Hot Spot” For Marine Technology, Business

NMC has a progressive approach to educating not just visiting industry members but also students pursuing degrees in marine technology, said Vasey.

“This facility and the support we get is the best it gets,” he said. “The professionals are looking for this kind of place, that’s training people for the workforce, but not just single skillsets.”

Between providing ongoing education for industry experts and preparing up and coming industry leaders, NMC and Traverse City could become a hotspot for marine technology.

“Any time that you have a learning facility that is putting people out into the market area, especially in this part of the country where things are relatively inexpensive as compared to say California, that gives an attraction to business,” said Atherton.

VanSumeren said the program may spur such businesses to open satellite offices nearby to take advantage of the training for existing employees and the access to new, highly-skilled labor.

Through the sonar training, NMC is also already attracting more than just commerce opportunities. The GLWSI recently trained nearly 30 law enforcement officers, from state police to FBI agents to Canadian Mounties. Their goal for sonar systems is often to ensure the safety of marine ports or to recover missing bodies.

Later this year, students and faculty from the Yellow River Conservancy Technical Institute in China will travel to NMC to train on sonar technology. “It’s an exchange of talents, its an exchange of capabilities and curriculum,” said VanSumeren.

With the program already a documented success, Atherton and others only see it continuing to grow.

“This is the third time we’ve done it here and each time it seems to expand, and more program is included,” he said.

VanSumeren indicated the college has plans to build a 70,000 gallon indoor tank to replicate different weather and water conditions.

“We want to build on that and become known as ‘the’ training center, not just in the Great Lakes, but in the whole U.S.” he said.


Commercial uses for sonar imaging

Underwater operations that are contingent on divers can often be costly and dangerous. When conditions are bad, these operations are also susceptible to frequent human error. Through the use of sonar, marine companies can accomplish the following:

Inspection of man-made structures (bridges, docks, pipes and dams)
Site and lake bed search and survey
Underwater construction support
Pipeline and cable surveys
Dredging operations
Diving support
Underwater recovery operations
Archaeological surveying
Underwater timber stockpile assessment

Source: Kongsberg Mesotech