A Gavia Scientific Autonomous Underwater Vehicle dries on the deck of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy after recovery from a simulated oil in ice exercise in the Arctic Aug. 20, 2014. The AUV is outfitted with sonar and radar sensors which allow responders to locate oil trapped beneath or within the ice. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert)
COAST GUARD CUTTER HEALY, At Sea - Scientists from the Coast Guard Research and Development Center and their colleagues traveled to the Arctic aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy this year to evaluate a wide variety of technologies for use in responding to oil in icy water. While some of those technologies were designed for viewing the ice and simulated oil from above however, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle was being used to see the ice from below.
One of the many challenges of working in Arctic waters is the year-round presence of ice in the water. Oil can be difficult enough to recover when it’s spread across open water, but ice formations with their irregular shapes and often enormous sizes can provide the substance with plenty of nooks and crevices to hide in making recovery efforts even more challenging. The Coast Guard and its partners are hoping to circumvent this problem through the use of AUVs, unmanned submarine-like devices that can get under ice to provide a clear view of what lurks below its surface. “AUVs have a lot of potential for enhancing Coast Guard operations,” said Scot Tripp, AUV demonstration lead for the RDC aboard the Healy. “In addition to their uses in locating and tracking oil beneath the ice edge, AUVs could be used for resource monitoring or patrolling living marine resource zones by acoustically detecting when fishing vessels enter restricted waters.
” For this year’s exercise, the Coast Guard and University of Cambridge deployed a Gavia Scientific AUV equipped with side scan sonar and obstacle avoidance radar. This allowed the device to map underneath ice ridges and provide underwater imagery which will help researchers to better understand the topography of ice floes. During an oil spill response, this information could give responders a more accurate picture of how much oil needs to be recovered from the ice and the direction it is drifting. “In the event of something like an oil spill, there are going to be times you need to be able to study the features of the ice that are under water,” said Dr. Peter Wadhams, a professor of oceanic physics with Cambridge University traveling aboard the Healy. “You can’t always get out onto the ice and drill a hole into it, but a benefit of the AUV is that it can go under the ice to provide that imagery.”
The Coast Guard’s work with AUVs is only just beginning, but the strengths of the technology are already becoming apparent to the RDC. The devices are portable, allowing for easy deployment and their autonomous design allows for some models to operate for weeks or even months at a time.
“AUVs are a useful diver-replacement tool, especially in Arctic waters where conditions might be too dangerous to send down a human diver for very long,” said Tripp. “The technology isn’t yet ready for widespread Coast Guard use, but by testing it now, we’ll be better informed about the AUV’s limitations and capabilities when an oil spill or other emergency takes place in the Arctic.”