GUY RAZ, host:
We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Three Cabinet members are headed back to the Gulf to get a better handle on the damage from that oil spill. BP says the tube it inserted into the underwater well is only able to funnel a fraction of that oil leak.
The company is now pinning its hopes on an operation it plans to carry out this week called a top kill. That involves pumping heavy mud into the well and then sealing it. Meantime, much of the information we now have about the spill comes from deep-sea robots that are working to contain it.
NPR's Yuki Noguchi has that story.
YUKI NOGUCHI: These robots have names like Maxximum and Hercules, and the media has, at times, cast them in heroic roles.
Unidentified Man #1: Underwater robots are hard at work with an unprecedented task. BP engineers...
NOGUCHI: But as BP tried containment devices, top hats and siphons, the robots have also at times caused some of the problems.
Unidentified Woman #1: Remotely-operated robots, taking photos of the work, crashed into each other and knocked the pipes apart. BP says it could take about...
NOGUCHI: BP has contracted with at least four robotics companies. 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 split riser. The machines also carry equipment and maneuver and drill things into place.
They are box-like and vary in size from something comparable to a small car up to a big truck. Much of its bulk comes from generous amounts of hard foam that help the robots withstand extreme water pressure at the ocean floor.
Operating them is no easy task. It takes several people to control and monitor each robot from aboard a ship. The machines are lowered into the water, but remain tethered by either a fiber optic or copper cable to power it and to send images back to the crew.
Mr. CRAIG DAWE (Technical Support Manager, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute): The first thing that you really notice is that it starts to get dark very, very quickly. Depending on the water where you are, you know, anything below 300 feet, there's not a lot of light down there.
NOGUCHI: Craig Dawe has worked in the oil and gas field piloting deep-sea robots. He's now technical support manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, which uses similar remote-operated vehicles or ROVs to study deep-sea life and geology.
Dawe says there's no sense of touch and no 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 and where 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.
Mr. DAWE: One of the biggest challenges operating ROVs in deep water is water currents, the motion of the water and how it affects the ROV itself, and more significantly, how it affects the cable.
NOGUCHI: 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.
Mr. JOHN MAIR (Global Technology Manager, Subsea 7): In the early days, we lost a few, yeah. That's for sure.
NOGUCHI: That's 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. These days, Mair says, pilots, usually engineers by training, have better technical tools to recover in the face of snags. But Mair says pilots in the Gulf are having to do things they've never practiced.
Mr. MAIR: If you do something with the robotic arms that they haven't practiced before, they haven't done before, if they try to do something like that mid-water, perhaps, that can be quite challenging.
NOGUCHI: The camera lenses, meanwhile, are getting clouded by plumes of oil and gas, impairing visibility even more. Mair says the BP spill has shown the world how much hinges on the work of a team of robots.
Mr. MAIR: It's groundbreaking, obviously, in terms of the worldwide attention that it's getting and the impact that we're trying to avoid.
NOGUCHI: And for the crews, he says, it's a new kind of stress to have their successes and failures broadcast in real time for the world to see.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
RAZ: And you can watch real-time streaming video of the oil spill at our website, npr.org.