Unmanned maritime systems have made several technological advances in recent years and the BP oil spill is proving how valuable and effective those systems are for disaster relief efforts. In addition to disaster relief there are many uses for unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) that are making an impact on our world today.
"UUVs can assist in missions from disasters to environmental research, port security and more," said Michael Toscano, President and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). "Their ability to operate in depths and temperatures unsuitable for humans, for periods of time that are impossible for humans are opening up the possibilities for undersea research and security that has been unachievable until now."
On Monday, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) installed a new 150,000-pound containment cap over the gushing Deepwater Horizon well and so far the new cap is containing the oil spill. The ROVs had to remove the old cap, unbolt the cut-off riser pipe and bolt a new pipe in its place, an easy task for human hands, but a task only a robot could do in the 5,000 foot depths where the work took place.
ROVs have been used in deepwater industries for more than three decades, mostly for routine maintenance, construction and monitoring work, but have been a focus of attention in responding to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. According to BP, a total of nine ROVs are deployed for various purposes in addressing the spill in the Gulf including monitoring the well, supporting attempts to activate the blowout preventer and holding a wand to spray dispersant into oil at the seabed.
In addition to the ROVs deployed by BP several other organizations have deployed UUVs to aid in response to the oil spill including the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), Mote Marine Laboratory, Coastal Ocean Institute at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and iRobot Corp. Their missions are not containment or repair operations but are scientific missions to help estimate the dispersion and environmental/biological impacts of the oil. These missions are intended to map underwater oil plumes and capture water samples where it is unsafe or impossible to put manned missions, and they are helping determine how to respond in the future.
MBARI's Division of Marine Operations, under an agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sent a high-tech robotic submersible to the Gulf of Mexico to collect information about the oil plume from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig accident for NOAA. Although satellites and aircraft can help show the extent of the spill at the surface, MBARI's autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) will help researchers understand the nature and extent of any plumes of oil that may be hidden beneath the surface of the ocean.
Mote Marine Laboratory has three AUVs patrolling Gulf waters for signs of oil and dispersants. Mote has sent the AUVs to areas they believe oil could appear as it flows throughout the Gulf. In addition to providing a potential early warning for coastal communities, the robots are gathering new and critical information about ocean currents that will lead to more refined models for things like oil movement.
The Coastal Ocean Institute at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is using its Sentry robot to 3-D image the oil spill's size and shape and to determine the chemical composition of plumes.
iRobot's Seaglider UUV is currently being used as a platform to potentially detect the presence of oil and its movement in affected areas. Researchers in the Gulf of Mexico have deployed Seaglider to locate and monitor large clouds of dispersed oil droplets believed to be at depths of approximately 2,296 feet. Seaglider measures temperature, salinity and other ocean properties in 3-D at depths of up to 3,290 feet, it can provide up to 10 months of continuous operation and data can be transmitted via satellite several times each day to anywhere in the world using an Internet-connected device.
In addition to their work underwater, unmanned systems also have a role to play in the skies above the Deepwater Horizon spill. Michael Kostelnik, assistant commissioner for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Office of Air and Marine, told members of Congress that two CBP Predator vehicles are monitoring the Gulf spill from the air. One is a Guardian model Predator, which carries a special maritime radar, and the other is a Predator B on loan from the CBP's North Dakota facility. They operate from Canaveral Air Station, Fla.
"Together, the Guardian and Predator B have enabled CBP to support the response to large-scale events such as hurricanes, floods and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and have positioned CBP to confront ever-changing threats to the homeland in the future," Kostelnik told the House Committee on Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism on July 15.
Organizations contributing to the efforts in the Gulf:
• C-Innovation - ROVs
• Coastal Ocean Institute at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
• iRobot Corporation
• Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
• Mote Marine Lab
• Oceaneering International
• Subsea 7
Other uses of UUVs and Unmanned Surface Vehicles:
• Survey and inspection of pipeline networks
• Wildlife tracking/surveillance
• Environmental research
• Range Clearance
• Geological Survey/Geophysical Research
• Oil rig/ship hull monitoring
• Ocean monitoring
• Scientific and oceanographic research
Learn more about UUVs being used in the Gulf of Mexico at AUVSI's Unmanned Systems North America 2010 in Denver, Colorado, 24-27 August at "Unmanned Systems Helping in the Gulf" with speakers from iRobot, MBARI and Mote (invited).