Aquatic Robotics

Robots Help With Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Posted 5 May 2010 at 21:11 UTC (updated 12 May 2010 at 15:30 UTC) by steve Share This

The image above, from the US Coast Guard's flickr stream, shows an ROV attempting to activate the Deepwater Horizon Blowout Preventer (BOP). The attempt failed and the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues, threatening to become one of the biggest environmental disasters of all time. Efforts to stop the spill now include at least 10 underwater robots (google cache)(in addition to 200 manned sea vessels). US Coast Guard ROVs located two of the major leaks. There have been unsuccessful attempts by six different ROVs to close the BOP. Other underwater robots (google cache)are monitoring the disaster site, locating portions of the spill and dispensing subsea oil dispersents. BP has rented most of the ROVs they're using but ExxonMobil has donated the use of one underwater robot plus a support vessel. ROVs working on one of the three major leaks today successfully installed a half-ton valve on the broken pipe and were able to shut it off. Next up for the robots is to assist with the lowering of a 100 ton containment dome over the disaster site to contain the spilling oil. This type of operation has never been attempted at a depth of 5,000 feet. If the containment dome doesn't work, scientists warn, the spill may get worse fast. Dr. Robert H. Weisberg of the University of South Florida says,

It's very likely that at some point oil will be entrained in the Loop Current. Once entrainment happens, the speed of the Loop Current could go from that point to the Dry Tortugas in a week, to Cape Hatteras in another two weeks. Getting into the Loop Current may take some time. But once in the Loop Current, the oil will move rather quickly.

If that happens the oil will threaten environments along the Gulf coast, the Florida Keys, and Atlantic Seaboard. Particulate pollution from burn offs and VOCs outgassing from the massive slick could threaten human health (content removed from EPA website, they now have an updated air quality monitoring page). USF is sending a special robotic sensor platform called the Weatherbird II into the spill zone to monitor how zooplankton are impacted by the cloud of toxic water. Tiny oil droplets harmless to larger animals can kill zooplankton, which are a key element in the undersea food chain. For up to date information on the disaster see the NOAA photo stream, NASA satellite images (and NASA MODIS rapid response sat images), and the EPA's live air quality monitoring network.

Update: BP.com and deepwaterhorizonresponse.com are frequently removing and altering content on their site. I've linked to Google cache data for several pages. Expect more links to go bad as they continue to revise their content.

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