LEWES -- A few weeks ago, University of Delaware assistant professor Matt Oliver figured his underwater robot would spend a typical summer trolling the mid-Atlantic seas recording water conditions.
Those plans changed quickly after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico started seeping to the east. Mote Marine Laboratories of Sarasota, Fla., needed Oliver's autonomous device to patrol Florida's Gulf Coast.
So glider robot UD134, affectionately known by researchers as the Blue Hen, dove into Gulf waters off the coast of Key West last week and started looking for signs of oil.
Just as it has for so many other scientists and engineers around the country, the spill has seized the focus of UD's School of Marine Science and Policy. Oliver and his colleagues have spent a hectic few weeks setting up computer programs to analyze the data the robot collects and relays via satellite.
The Blue Hen is part of a larger effort mounted by Mote, government agencies and universities as the oil approaches marine ecosystems surrounding Florida. The mission highlights some particular challenges created by the country's worst oil spill, gushing about a mile underwater: Researchers have developed most tracking, containment and environmental mitigation techniques for surface oil spills.
By measuring currents, temperature and water density, the Blue Hen -- and three similar robots from Rutgers University and the University of South Florida -- could help predict where the slick might head next. But, perhaps more importantly, they scout the depths for pockets of petroleum floating below the surface. The underwater oil is a source of growing concern for government officials and environmentalists. In a news conference Monday, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the oil has dispersed into hundreds of patches, meaning cleanup could take years.
The oil pooling on the surface is tracked easily from satellites or planes, scientists said. The dispersants act on the slick the way soap does on greasy hands. The oil washes away into the water, becoming less visible. But it doesn't disappear, Oliver said.
"If you disperse it, you get less gory photos of oil-drenched pelicans," Oliver said. "But it's not a solution to the problem. You're just choosing new victims."
Some of the subsurface petroleum will find its way into ocean sediments. If the concentration becomes high enough, it could destroy marine habitats, breeding grounds and food supplies, said Dominic DiToro, a UD professor of environmental engineering who researches aquatic and sediment toxicity.
"It's like dissolving a poison in cake batter," he said. "Long after that's gone, it's the sediments that will be the problem."
So far, none of the glider robots have detected subsurface oil headed in Florida's direction. But a large plume of oil sits inside a loop currentprecariously close to the Gulf Stream, which would carry the slick up the Eastern Seaboard. But seeing any oil in Delaware is "highly unlikely," Oliver said, thanks to the protection of the continental shelf.
Scientists at Mote labs are most concerned about Florida's barrier reef near the Keys, where the Blue Hen was launched. The only barrier reef in North America, it supports hundreds of species.
The Blue Hen patrols by beaming light down to the Gulf floor. If it reflects back with a certain fluorescence, hydrocarbons could be present, Oliver said. Research ships from Mote or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would then take samples to determine the oil's concentration and potential environmental impact.
The work of the Blue Hen -- and the efforts of other glider robots -- to track the movement of hydrocarbons has never been done before, reflecting the unprecedented nature of the crisis, Oliver said.
"That combination of things is, to my understanding, unique," said Gary Kirkpatrick, a senior scientist at Mote overseeing the operation. "We're discovering how to do these things, this particular task, as we go along."
Although none of them would have chosen this task, Oliver and the other researchers have marveled at the way advanced communications have aided collaboration and real-time monitoring of water conditions.
"It's horrifying what's going on down there, but it's been amazing the way different organizations have come together to do this," he said. "Ten years ago, no way it would have happened."
Oliver can track the Blue Hen's location and the data it collects in real time on nine LCD flat screens in his Lewes lab.
With its onboard satellite phone, the Blue Hen sends a voicemail to a call center in Arizona every three hours, Oliver said. The call center routes the text of the message to an IP address, which triggers an e-mail alert on Oliver's BlackBerry. The dense data set the robot reports feeds into mapping programs Oliver devised, providing a visual sense of conditions in that part of the Gulf.
Even if the researchers successfully track the petroleum's path, they will be powerless to stop it. The Blue Hens' mission is more about assessing the spill's impact to aid cleanup in the years to come. The process will be long and difficult, Oliver said.
"People keep asking, 'What can we do?' " Oliver said. "And I have to say, 'I'm not sure.' There are no good ways to clean subsurface oil."