U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley/AP
Ryan Gressett (left) and Todd Schilla (right) pilot a remotely operated vehicle into the Gulf of Mexico with the goal of placing a small pollution containment chamber to contain an oil leak.
Ryan Gressett (left) and Todd Schilla (right) pilot a remotely operated vehicle into the Gulf of Mexico with the goal of placing a small pollution containment chamber to contain an oil leak. U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley/AP
To the extent that there are any heroes helping to resolve the massive Gulf oil spill, they go by names like Maxximum and Hercules. They are compact, heavy and act as human proxies miles undersea.
Robots, or remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), have played a major role in the Gulf of Mexico. Using these deep-sea rovers, BP has been able to capture the now famous videos of oil and gas bubbling out — and assess the damage to the underwater well pipe. The machines also carry equipment, and maneuver and drill things into place.
BP has contracted with at least four robotics companies, including Oceaneering International Inc., Subsea 7 and C-Innovation, to do the work. But operating them is no easy task.
Operating In The Dark
"The first thing that you really notice is that it starts to get dark very, very quickly," says Craig Dawe, who has worked in the oil and gas industry piloting deep-sea robots. "Anything below 300 feet, there's not a lot of light down there."
The damaged Gulf oil well is 5,000 feet below the surface.
Dawe is now technical support manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, which uses similar ROVs to study deep-sea life and geology.
It takes several people to control and monitor each robot remotely from aboard a boat. The machines are lowered into the water, but remain tethered by either a fiber optic or copper cable — to power them and to send images back to the crew.
The robots themselves are box-like and vary in size from something comparable to a small car up to a big truck. Much of the bulk comes from generous amounts of hard foam — an epoxy that includes pieces of glass — that help the robots withstand extreme water pressure at the ocean floor.
Navigating With Sonar
Dawe says there's no sense of touch or sound to guide the pilots. To "see," robots are equipped with some lighting, but they mostly rely on sonar signals that bounce off of things nearby to gauge proximity.
The pilots, meanwhile, sit in what looks like a high-end game room in front of video screens and control panels. There, they navigate the robot with a joystick. The robotic arms are moved with a piece of equipment designed to simulate a human arm, with a kind of tactile feedback that makes the movement a little more fluid.
The Challenge Of Currents
In addition to visibility, Dawe says, ROVs face other big challenges in deep water. Currents can alter the position of the long tether of cable. Just as the power cord on a vacuum gets stuck going around a wall or under the leg of a table, the miles-long cable can also get tangled.
John Mair, global technology manager for Subsea 7, a Scottish company that has contracted some of its robots and crew to BP in the Gulf, says that in the early years of undersea robotics, many machines were lost at sea.
These days, Mair says, pilots, who are usually engineers by training, have better technical tools to recover robots when snags occur. Still, Mair says pilots in the Gulf have to do things they've never practiced.
The challenges of the deep include dealing with camera lenses that get clouded by plumes of oil and gas, impairing visibility even more, he says.
"It's groundbreaking, obviously, in terms of the worldwide attention that it's getting and the [environmental] impact we're trying to avoid," Mair says.
He says the BP spill has shown the world how much hinges on the work of a team of robots. And for the crews, it's a new kind of stress to have their successes and failures broadcast in real time for the whole world to see.