Deep-sea robots are center stage at the Gulf oil disaster. Millions of Americans are watching live videos of robotic arms sawing off jagged sections of pipe and positioning a lid on the leaking well a mile beneath the sea. But as some robot efforts fizzle and the oil continues to gush, observers say the crisis is showing that underwater technology is far from fail-proof.
Analysts say the crisis will spur calls for more advanced, next-generation deep-sea robots to help fight future oil disasters. These machines will be packed with more computing power. Some may be shaped like sea animals to make them more maneuverable. And some will be independent of direct human control — able to make autonomous decisions.
The U.S., Britain, China, Japan and South Korea are expected to lead the way in developing better deep-sea robots for oil drilling, military surveillance and more. "What these robots can do is already incredible. But the need to do more stuff will be even greater in the future," said Michael Donovan, the director of sales and marketing for marine robot maker Bluefin Robotics. Donovan says better deep-sea robots will be part of an "increased situational awareness" by all oil companies in the wake of the Gulf disaster. Designs for many of these future devices will be based on lessons being learned in the current crisis.
The types of deep-sea robots that will be affected by what we learn today range from 18-foot-tall, 60-ton "digger" robots used to carve out trenches on the ocean's bottom, to tiny, propeller-driven devices linked by cable to mother ships used to explore deep seas and send images to ships above.
Main Market Offshore Drillers
Oil firms with offshore drilling and exploration activities are the biggest users of these undersea machines. The leading makers of these highly specialized and complex marine vehicles include Bedford, Mass.-based iRobot Corp. (IRBT) and privately held Bluefin Robotics in Cambridge, Mass. Bluefin is owned by Battelle, a nonprofit research group based in Columbus, Ohio. Another player is British-based CTC Marine Products. Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries is another.
MarketsandMarkets, a research firm, says global sales of service robots, which include underwater and other types of industrial robots, will reach $21 billion in 2014, up from $17.3 billion in 2008.
U.S. scientists this month used an unmanned underwater robot called Seaglider, made by iRobot, to locate and measure dispersed oil drops from the Gulf spill. Seaglider can nose through the ocean depths on its own, like a small sub, for up to 10 months without refueling. The data it collects can be transmitted via satellite several times a day anywhere, using an Internet-connected device.
Big oil firms routinely share their knowledge of offshore petroleum operations with robot makers, in order to help develop specialized underwater robots. The need for better undersea technology will be further driven home once Washington lifts a current moratorium on offshore drilling and such operations resume. President Obama has ordered a six-month halt on drilling in waters 500 feet and deeper while a commission investigates safety issues and more. The federal government defines "deep" as any well that's more than 500 feet down. The move affects about 600 wells in U.S. coastal waters. Reports say the administration most likely will lift the curb on wells that operate at these shallower depths first, rather than those at depths of many thousands of feet.
Donovan says the legal liabilities faced by BP in the Gulf spill will motivate big oil players to have better marine robots to deal with future spills quickly and effectively. Besides robots, Donovan says the crisis will lead to developing better underwater sensors that can detect and track deep-sea oil drilling problems.
Joe Dyer, a retired Navy vice admiral and president of iRobot's government and industries unit, says the BP crisis will create demand for marine robots of different sizes and capabilities. If there's anything the next generation of marine robots will share, he says, it's that they will all be "smarter."
Demand for deep-sea robots is being driven by Moore's Law, says John Pike, who heads research firm GlobalSecurity.org. Intel (INTC) co-founder Gordon Moore famously wrote in the 1960s that chip performance would roughly double every 18 months. "These marine robots get twice as smart every 18 months," Pike said.
A May 7 article in Scientific American predicts that the oil industry will at some point rely completely on autonomous vehicles. AUVs decide independently when to use thrusters, arms and other gear to do their fix-it work. Such vehicles wouldn't be tethered by cable to human operators in a mother ship.
Tethered gear requires that technicians watch the work on TV screens aboard ships and direct every move, sometimes with slow or clunky results. Such work is an even bigger challenge at a depth of 5,000 feet.
Bluefin's Donovan says, however, that it isn't clear yet if AUVs work better than tethered ones. He says today's AUVs, like the ones made by Bluefin, are used mostly for observation, not to perform heavy work. On the other hand, he says the tethered robots that BP is using in the Gulf are also incapable of doing heavy work.
Autonomous Robots Best?
"You could say that building autonomous robots that can do heavy work is a logical progression," Donovan said. "But what I cannot say is whether having a tethered vehicle has actually impeded BP from what they need to do in the current oil spill."
It was reported last month that a tethered robotic sub, guided by technicians above, managed to cap one of the leaks from the BP well. It was able to move a valve weighing over a ton into place, stopping one of the three leaks spewing from the ocean floor. But the robot failed to plug the other leaks.
The push to develop better deep-sea robotics extends beyond the U.S. China is reportedly developing huge underwater robots for offshore oil drilling in the oil-rich South China Sea. Canada is using robotic subs to map the Arctic Ocean floor to boost territorial claims for natural resources along its continental shelf.
The Korea Times reported in May that South Korean scientists are developing underwater robots shaped like dolphins, crabs, squids and other sea animals. The idea is that biologically inspired robotics with fins or legs can move better across a seafloor than machinelike robots.
"The global aquatic robot market is set to explode, headed by such pioneers as the U.S. and the United Kingdom. China also has a keen interest in the potential-laden area," scientist Ryuh Young-sun told the Korea Times. Ryuh heads the Underwater Robotic Center, a research institute created by South Korea's government to design biologically inspired marine robots.