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Falmouth firm's remote-control camera was key to discovery

High-tech vehicle's lens spotted fuselage

By Bruce Mohl, Globe Staff, 07/22/99

Searchers found the plane and bodies of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren - a discovery many had likened to finding a needle in a haystack - using a remote-controlled, camera-equipped vehicle made by a Falmouth company.

The box-like vehicle, operated from the surface and equipped with propellers, lights, cameras, sonar, and a robotic arm, was sent down late Tuesday night off Martha's Vineyard to investigate a sonar target. It found an 8- to 10-foot section of Kennedy's Piper Saratoga fuselage.

The bodies, all still inside the fuselage, were positively identified by divers yesterday morning, said Rear Admiral Richard Larrabee of the Coast Guard.

Several technologies were used to find the plane. Radar data analysis helped locate where the plane went down and sonar surveys of the seabed in that area identified items that didn't seem to belong there.

The Navy's remote-controlled vehicle, manufactured by Benthos Inc. of Falmouth, made it possible to explore likely sonar targets easier and faster. Divers had been hampered by low visibility and strong currents.

Benthos officials said their remote-operated vehicles are capable of generating high-quality pictures and video that can not only help locate items on the sea bottom but aid in their salvage.

''It's safer than sending a diver down and it's usually a lot faster,'' said John Coughlin, president of Benthos.

Larrabee, who directed the search, said the vehicle was also sent down with the divers yesterday and its lights aided them in their work. He declined to say how the bodies were brought to the surface yesterday afternoon, but said it was done in a way that ''respected the situation we were in.''

Benthos vehicles were used in the search for wreckage from the Swissair flight that went down off of Nova Scotia last year, and from TWA flight 800, which fell to the sea off of Long Island in 1996. A Benthos vehicle was also used in 1994 to search the Quincy quarries for a missing student from Ireland.

The Benthos vehicles are relatively small and operate much like the robot vehicle used in the movie ''Titanic'' in the simulated exploration of the sunken ship. The operator pilots the vehicle using a joy stick and watching a TV monitor hooked up to the vehicle's cameras. The vehicle is linked to its operator by a cable.

Coughlin said his company's vehicles are most often purchased by oil and gas companies, underwater construction firms, and nuclear power plants. He said the equipment is useful in monitoring underwater equipment or construction, as well as for research and archeological work.

Benthos makes two models that often operate in tandem. One is about 5 feet long, weighs 700 pounds, and is capable of carrying lots of equipment, said company spokesman Peter Zentz. The other is about 4 feet long, weighs about 50 pounds, and is used for quick operations.

The Navy purchased its Benthos vehicles around 1993, Zentz said. The vehicles cost anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million, depending on what additional equipment is added. Zentz said the larger vehicle purchased by the Navy cost about $150,000.

The Benthos vehicles are currently capable of descending to depths of 5,000 feet, but the company is preparing to unveil one that will dive to 10,000 feet. Kennedy's plane was found at a depth of 116 feet.

Benthos is a publicly traded company with 110 employees and $14 million in revenues. It was founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Sam Raymond.

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 07/22/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.


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