Bots not bodies: Analogs and robots in hostile environments. AAG DC 2019.

2019 Sammler, K., L. House-Peters, C. Lynch. Botties not bodies: Analogs and robots in hostile environments. American Association of Geographers (AAG). Washington DC 3–7 Apr.

TITLE: Botties not bodies: Producing analogs and robots for environments hostile to human life

AUTHORS: Katherine Sammler, PhD, California State University Maritime Academy
Lily House-Peters, PhD, California State University Long Beach
Casey Lynch, University of Arizona


Outer space and ocean space– or as some have called ‘inner space’ — have long been imagined as analogs, mirroring each other as inscrutable frontiers. The Cold War-era Space Race had at one point included a race to the depths of the ocean as well the reaches of space. In the US, at the same time NASA was creating the infrastructure to put a man on the moon, the navy was constructing Sealabs (I-III), crewed underwater habitats to explore and dominate the sea. Shortly after this project Skylab constituted the only solo US space station program to prove that humans could live in space. Within the political tensions of the Cold War, both the ocean and outer space became the target for extending humanity’s reach, specifically a military arm, towards securing and gaining strategic advantage above and below the planetary surface.

The environment faced by the aquanauts and astronauts living and working in these habitats was difficult and the crew’s bodies were continuously monitored to learn how they were withstanding the extreme conditions. Within the strict militarized hierarchy of these projects, one of the concerns that the surface mission controls had about the men – and they were all men, trained by Navy, Marines, and Air Force – was breakaway phenomenon. Breakaway phenomenon, originally a condition described in the experience of high-altitude test pilots, is defined in the medical dictionary as “a sensation of being totally detached from the earth and from other people.”

This breakaway phenomenon seems at least partially a condition of spatial orientation, physical separation from the Earth, losing connection with the world, like Adey comments, the embodied gaze left the shackles of the terrestrial subject” (2010, p. 2). As the thrust of projects within these environments has shifted from Cold War to hot commodity, the import of occupation superseded by extraction, the positionality of the bodies involved has shifted as well. The hostility of these environments to human bodies has ushered in a new wave of robotics for extreme conditions. Humans are not replaced but spatially displaced, from artificial habitat back to an earthly surface, with robot intermediary. Just as Shaw’s drone warfare has “constructed remote power topologies that bridge human pilots with remote targets” (2017, p. 462), so does the rearrangement of the bodies and bots within sea and space pose new questions of spatial relations between humans, extreme environments, and extraction targets.

While Ben Woodard’s Ungrounded Earth project attempts to disrupt the “earth-anchoring of thought” (Woodard 2013, 6), this project is interested in exploring the earth-anchoring of bodies and embodied experiences, and the orientation of human bodies and planetary bodies as biomass and geomass. Expanding Peter Adey’s concept of the Aerial body, this work seeks to understand the body in relation to extreme environments as well as the relationship of the human body to the planetary body as “new connections between the horizontal and the vertical are brought into being….[while still] tethered to the terrestrial” (Adey 2010, p. 2).

As Above, So Below
The breakaway phenomenon was first described by pilots at high altitude as investigated by Clark and Graybiel in their 1957 article in The Journal of Aviation Medicine. Learning from pilot interviews that many had experienced, “A condition of spatial orientation in which the pilot conceives [themselves] to be isolated, detached, and physically separated from the earth… somehow losing connection with the world” (pp 121,126). One pilot said “I feel like I have broken the bonds from the terrestrial sphere” (p 122), another describes having, “left the world. There is only the ship to identify myself with, her vibrations are my own, I feel them as intensely as those of my body. Here is a kind of unreality mixed with reality…” (p 125).

The relationship between Sealab aquanauts and the topside is described by Rachel Squire’s research, “Surface personnel were referred to as “earth people” and occasionally held in mock contempt by the sea dwellers…Until the importance of discipline was reiterated from above, intercom calls went unanswered for ‘long minutes’; excursion dives took place on half empty air bottles with no reports on entry and exit times; electrowriter messages were ignored for as much as half an hour; and the daily situation report to be delivered at [8:00] pm arrived three hours late on one occasion” (Squire p 232).

Ben Hellwarth recounts in his book on Sealab, “The aquanauts occasionally engaged in behavior that irritated the topside commanders. They covered the lens of the closed-circuit TV camera inside the habitat, scribbled derisive messages in the electrowriter, adjusted their atmosphere without proper approval, or made sorties from the lab without reporting their movements as required: (2017, p?). George Bond, a Navy physician and researcher on hyperbaric medicine and saturation diving, was the principle investigator of the Sealab program. He considered this type of behavior as “aquanaut breakaway phenomenon” as exhibiting independence, as autonomous actors living on the ocean floor, “while being constantly watched and hounded with instructions (Hellwarth 2017).

In many ways, including the name, the Sealab project was mirrored in the later Skylab missions. Mary Roach chronicles how “Venting your frustration at Mission Control personnel is a time-honored astronaut tradition, known in psychology circles as “displacement” (Roach 2011, p 54). Astronauts aboard Skylab 4 exhibited such behavior, “rejecting what Samir Chopra describes as the ‘panopticon-like control’ and regulation of their bodies and labor” (Sammler & Lynch 2019). The crew had a grievance with ground control and it was rooted in their daily drudgery, working 16 hours a day for 84 straight days conducting experiments and observations, following lengthy daily instructions sent via teleprinter, some of which were up to 15 meters long. Taking action, the crew staged an offplanet work stoppage for one day. And paralleling their undersea compatriots, they targeted the line of communication to the “earth people.” They turned off their radio and used the day for personal time.

From Cold War to Hot Commodity
Despite the creation of most of ocean space and all of outer space as commons, with most easily accessible and economically viable materials on land depleted, many extractive industries continue to move into more remote and difficult spaces. This includes prospecting the depths of the ocean, and even laying the groundwork for offplanet mining. And while the expensive and experimental missions of Sealab sand Skylab had been national projects, there has been a shift beyond securitizing these spaces towards securing private profits.

A technical report on Underwater Mining Robotics outlines how “Removing operators from the vicinity of worksites introduces many technical challenges: low  situational awareness in unknown environments, complexity of operated machines, and the need for high bandwidth real-time communication.” Yet, the expense and danger associated with placing bodies in these places, along with how hierarchal structures can breakdown, has led robotic technology to displace humans. For instance, Nautilus Minerals Inc, in developing its experimental seabed mining project in Papua New Guinea, has commissioned specially designed autonomous vehicles for the job. These Seafloor Production Tools are meant to animate soporific seafloors into lively and productive capital — in the cold, dark, depths where only they can go. The challenges faced by such robotic systems are paralleled by those expected to undertake asteroid survey and excavation. The environments encountered are both mediated and reconfigured through robotics, generating knowledge of these worlds, even as they destroy them.

While employing robotic systems in these spaces allows for such projects to break free of the biological limitations of the human body and psyche, it simultaneously radically alters the future of our relationships to these environments. This poses questions of (dis)orientation and (dis)placement and the spatial relationship of the body to the planet.

Clark, B. and Graybiel, A. (1957). The break-off phenomenon a feeling of separation from the earth experienced by pilots at high altitude. The Journal of Aviation Medicine, 28(2):121– 126.

Dugan, J. (1966). Edge of Awareness; 25 Contemporary Essays, chapter Portrait of Homo Aquaticus, pages 211–220. Laurel leaf library. Dell Pub. Co, first edition.

Sammler, K. and Lynch, C. (2019). Spaceport America: Contested offworld access and the everyman astronaut. Geopolitics.

Shaw, I. G. (2017). Robot wars: Us empire and geopolitics in the robotic age. Security Dialogue, 45(5):451–470.

Roach, M. (2011). Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. W. W. Norton & Company.

Tyson, N. and Lang, A. (2018). Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military. W. W. Norton & Company.

Woodard, B. (2013). On An Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy. Punctum Books, Brooklyn, NY.

SESSIONS: Assembling Benthic Power I & II

ORGANIZERS: Jesse Swann-Quinn, Syracuse University
Kate Sammler, California State University Maritime Academy

Specialty Group Sponsors: Coastal and Marine; Cultural and Political Ecology; Political Geography

The rich yet unfamiliar benthic world, named for the Greek benthos or ‘depth of the sea,’ is increasingly shaped by human practices, politics, and technologies. Ocean ecologists refer to these complex ecological communities that emerge on both natural and artificial sea floor habitats as ‘benthic assemblages’ (Bolam et al., 2017; Megina et al., 2016). Among many other physical elements these ecosystems comprise mineral-rich hydrothermal vents, extreme pressure and darkness, and species yet unknown to science. Meanwhile, a diverse range of social scientists demonstrate that ‘offshore’ human activities similarly provide new arrangements of geopolitical, economic, and ecological relationships. Yet scholars often define these socio-material assemblages as existing only offshore. We tend to view these spaces as either removed from ‘the mainland,’ peripheral land at or above sea level, or as part of a general volume of ‘the sea’ or ‘the ocean’ (for exceptions, see: Elden, 2013; Sammler, 2017; Squire, 2018; Steinberg & Peters, 2015). Rarely do we consider these specific territories and spaces extending to earth below even our deepest waters, comprising complex spaces of intersecting volumes and planes: the benthic world located at the bottom of the sea.

Such concerns are increasingly necessary as humanity progressively enrolls the diverse materialities of the sea floor – long a ‘frontier’ of many sorts – within our political assemblages (Barry, 2001; Braun, 2006; Dittmer, 2014; Ong & Collier, 2004; Robbins & Marks, 2010). These formations generate particularly perplexing problems as the benthic world still most often remains distant and invisible, located in waters both legally and physically murky, and profoundly unknown compared to other global surfaces or more accessible habitats located higher in the water column. However, new technologies, emerging infrastructures, and shifting geopolitical events transform these geographies of centrality, proximity, and distance, increasingly drawing ocean depths metaphorically closer to shore.

This session draws together scholarship which might contribute to a greater understanding of the diverse set of social and material relationships that produce these deep-water assemblages, what we might call an emerging field of ‘benthic power.’ Potential contributions may address material, political, affective, or symbolic perspectives (among others), possibly, but not exclusively, related to one or more of the following topics:

– Undersea cable networks and ocean infrastructures
– Communication systems, espionage, and security
– Deep sea mining projects
– Oil drilling ecologies
– Geopolitics and territoriality of deep ocean commons
– Ocean grabbing
– Marine politics and scientific research
– Offshoring of economic, legal, or security forces
– Ports, hubs, and transportation routes
– Struggles of sovereignty and security at sea

Barry, A. (2001). Political Machines: Governing a Technological Society (1 edition). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Bolam, S. G., Garcia, C., Eggleton, J., Kenny, A. J., Buhl-Mortensen, L., Gonzalez-Mirelis, G., … Rijnsdorp, A. D. (2017). Differences in biological traits composition of benthic assemblages between unimpacted habitats. Marine Environmental Research, 126, 1–13.

Braun, B. (2006). Environmental issues: global natures in the space of assemblage. Progress in Human Geography; London, 30(5), 644–654.

Dittmer, J. (2014). Geopolitical assemblages and complexity. Progress in Human Geography, 38(3), 385–401.

Elden, S. (2013). Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power. Political Geography, 34, 35–51.

Megina, C., González-Duarte, M. M., & López-González, P. J. (2016). Benthic assemblages, biodiversity and invasiveness in marinas and commercial harbours: an investigation using a bioindicator group. Biofouling, 32(4), 465–475.

Ong, A., & Collier, S. J. (Eds.). (2004). Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems (1 edition). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Robbins, P., & Marks, B. (2010). Assemblage Geographies. In S. Smith, R. Pain, S. A. Marston, & J. P. Jones (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Social Geographies (pp. 176–195). SAGE Publications.

Sammler, K. (2017). The Deep Pacific: Island Governance and Seabed Mineral Development. In E. Stratford (Ed.), Island Geographies: Essays and Conversations (pp. 10–35). New York: Routledge.

Squire, R. (2018). Sub-marine territory: living and working on the seafloor during the Sealab II experiment. In K. Peters, P. Steinberg, & E. Stratford (Eds.), Territory Beyond Terra. London ; New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Steinberg, P., & Peters, K. (2015). Wet Ontologies, Fluid Spaces: Giving Depth to Volume through Oceanic Thinking. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 33(2), 247–264.


Assembling Benthic Power 1

Jason Dittmer, University College London, The State, All at Sea: Interoperability and the Global Network of Navies.

Katherine Sammler, California State University Maritime , Lily House-Peters, California State University Long Beach, Casey Lynch, University of Arizona, Botties not bodies: Producing analogs and robots for environments hostile to human life.

Jesse Swann-Quinn, Syracuse University, Imagining Extractive Archipelagos? Toward a Lived Geopolitics of Deep Seabed Mining.

Vanessa Koh, Yale University, Shifting Sands: Generating Land from the Seabed.

DISCUSSANT: Anna Zalik, York University.

Assembling Benthic Power 2

Elaine Stratford, University of Tasmania, Geographies of the Drowned.

Charles Travis, University of Texas – Arlington, Poul Holm, Trinity College, The University of Dublin, Francis Ludlow, Trinity College Dublin, Kevin Lougheed, King’s College London, Inventing the Grand Banks: Humanities GIS, and Cartesian Perceptions of North-West Atlantic Fisheries ca 1504-ca 1831.

Craig Young , The dead body, burial at sea and benthic power.

Nick Lewis, University Of Auckland, Geographical rents and blue economy experiments.

DISCUSSANT: Jessica Lehman University of Minnesota – Minneapolis.

See also As Above, So Below: Frontier Robots. APCG RNO 2018