Robots Shine Amid the Gulf Coast Oil Crisis
As America watches its worst oil spill in history, robotics technology takes the spotlight.
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Jun 15, 2010

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute's glider takes to the water.

Robots are being used to assess the impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as repair the damage.

By Geoffrey Oldmixon

Robots are front and center in the Gulf of Mexico these days. Americans are glued to their TV sets, newspapers, and Web media outlets, monitoring the progress of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. A lot of what they’re seeing—in addition to globs and swaths of oil—is robotics in action.

Indeed, from fact gathering to strategy execution, robotics technologies are at the heart of the oil spill response.

Measuring and Assessing
The BP Deep Horizons oil spill in the Gulf is releasing 25,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day into the ocean, according to the latest estimates. Those estimates were generated in no small part by the contributions of robotics technologies.

Bedford, Mass.-based iRobot, for example, has provided its deep-diving, untethered Seaglider (an unmanned underwater vehicle, or UUV) to the Marine Science Department at the University of Southern Mississippi, located at the Stennis Space Center, and the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle. Researchers in the Gulf have deployed Seaglider to locate and monitor large clouds of dispersed oil droplets. Seaglider also measures temperature, salinity, and other oceanic properties in 3D at depths of nearly 3,300 feet.

“We are realizing new and important mission profiles that Seaglider can support,” says Joe Dyer, president of iRobot’s government and industrial robots division. “Traditionally, gliders have proven themselves to be very useful tools for researchers and oceanographers to collect data.”

iRobot’s glider isn’t the only one tracking the effects of the disaster. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in Moss Landing, Calif., is joining the quest, too.

MBARI’s own autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) was deployed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month. The untethered, submersible robot can measure physical characteristics of water, such as temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen. It can also detect chlorophyll and measure oil concentrations.

Teledyn Technologies is another big name with a presence in the Gulf. Manufactured by East Falmouth, Mass.-based Teledyne Webb Research, Teledyne’s Slocum gliders are monitoring the waters off the coast of West Florida—specifically the edge of the so-called Loop Current, a strong current with the potential to carry oil out to the Florida Keys.

Four Slocum AUVs are in the waters around the West Florida shelf right now. The gliders are owned by Rutgers University, of New Brunswick, N.J., and were deployed by Mote Marine Laboratory, Sarasota, Fla.

“The Loop Current is a good place for these robots to be,” explains Dr. Gary Kirkpatrick, manager of Mote’s Phytoplankton Ecology Program. “All this information helps oceanographers create better ocean circulation models, which in turn are helping scientists predict the path of the oil spill.

Kirkpatrick says the data collected by the gliders is being cast in real time online.

Transporting and Repairing
Damage to BP’s deep-sea well pipe is at the heart of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Because the wellhead is 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, the only way the oil company can repair it is to employ remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). BP has contracted with a number of robotics companies, including Oceaneering International Inc., Subsea 7, and C-Innovation.

The robots being put to work in the oily waters of the Gulf of Mexico include copper- or fiber optic cable-tethered robots as well as untethered robots. Many of the robots use sonar signals to gauge proximity and are given navigational direction by human pilots above the surface.

For its part, Scottish innovator Subsea 7 has provided a “range of inspection, repair, maintenance, and light construction” resources to BP. The company’s Skandi Neptune ship is also in the Gulf assisting BP.

Influencing and Inspiring
Among the Americans watching robots respond to the oil spill crisis are other robotics innovators. Engineers and developers are watching events unfold, looking for ways to improve upon technology for the future.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Energid Technologies Corp., for example, announced last month that it will be providing software to a Norwegian oil drilling innovator, Seabed Rig AS. Energid originally developed the software for NASA and the National Science Foundation as a means for controlling complex robotic systems. “We are now leveraging the software to build the most intelligent rig of its kind,” says the company’s COO Neil Tardella.

The rig from Seabed Rig AS is designed to be fully automated, making it less susceptible to human error. “Robots do not get tired and make mistakes,” says Seabed Rig robotics and control systems manager Roald Valen. “They do not get hurt.”

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