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Gulf Oil Spill: Responding with Robots
BP reports its ROVs have succeeded in capping the leaking well head in the Gulf. Meet the robotics innovators that made it happen. By Geoffrey Oldmixon
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Jul 16, 2010

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BP reports its ROVs have succeeded in capping the leaking well head in the Gulf. Meet the robotics innovators that made it happen.



ON THE 86th DAY of the worst U.S. oil spill in history, it was announced by BP and government officials Thursday, July 15, that the oil had stopped flowing in the Gulf of Mexico…thanks in no small part to robots.

Since a well explosion below Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon drilling well in the Gulf on April 22, the BP well has released between 92 million and 182 million gallons of crude oil, depending on estimates. During that time, BP and its team of engineers have scrambled to cap the leaking well.

The BP well’s head resides roughly a mile below sea level, where no human can travel. BP has contracted at least four robotics innovators to help in the effort, including Houston-based Oceaneering International Inc., Louisiana’s C-Innovation, and Scottish company Subsea 7.

The latest news—that the well head has been sealed—comes after months of underwater work done entirely by robots.

THE ROBOTIC RESPONSE
BP’s response to the oil spill disaster has put underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) front and center in the press since April. For months, Americans have watched live streaming footage of at least a dozen ROVs cutting, hoisting, drilling, slinging, and pumping materials at the well head in an effort to fashion together a solution.

The ROVs range in size, but are generally several tons. Foam insulation protects the robots from the pressures of deep-sea diving.

The ROVs, like Oceaneering’s Millennium robot, are controlled by humans above the surface. The pilots use what little video feed they can to steer the ROVs, but rely mostly on sonar. Fiber optic or copper cables serve to tether the ROVs as well as to enable communications.

Essentially, BP’s strategy for stopping the leak has, since May, been to cap the well head and siphon its oil to vessels on the surface. ROVs immediately set to work to cut back the damaged well riser and place a so-called “containment dome” atop it.

But robots are not always heroic. That containment dome was damaged in June when an ROV collided into it. Operators of the ROVs cited heavy traffic (about a dozen robots were working in the area) as a factor.
A month later, BP and its team has placed a new, 75-ton cap on the well head.

Meanwhile, precision drilling continues to tap into the deep-water well with a “relief well.” Ithaca, N.Y.-based Vector Magnetics is employing sophisticated accelerometers and magnetometers to determine the angle and direction of the drilling project.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ROBOTICS
Along with news that the catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf may have at last been plugged has come quarterly financial indicators. So far, it’s a mixed bag. As Q2 2010 earnings trickle in, it will be worth considering whether the high-profile role that robotics played in the Gulf disaster response will affect financial gains.

For some companies, it may very well. Subsea 7, for example, announced a contract with BP “in excess of $135 million” last month as well as a $75 million deal with Apache North Sea Ltd. For others, it may not. Oceaneering CEO Jay Collins warned stockholders earlier this month that the government’s moratorium on deep-water drilling will have financial consequences. “Layoffs will be likely by September when the Macondo project is over,” he said. “We’ll begin to shift our focus to foreign operations.”

Oceaneering International announced its Q2 2010 earnings release and conference call dates this week and will disclose its figures July 29.


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