NEW ORLEANS — They're like Superman, but underwater: able to withstand 5,000 pounds of subsea pressure, lift up to a ton, take 3D video images and transfer hydraulic power to other equipment.
Submersible robots can do what no person ever could, and they're serving an important role in the fight to stop the oil gushing from the blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico.
A subcity of underwater robots is busily working 5,000 feet below the surface to help contain the leak that has gushed millions of gallons of oil into the water since the Deepwater Horizon blew up April 20, killing 11 workers.
Anyone who has watched online video of the crude spewing from the seafloor has seen their work — the cameras that provide the feeds are attached to the robots as they maneuver around the spill site.
They also made news this week when one bumped into a cap that has been collecting some of the oil, forcing BP to remove it for about 10 hours and leaving the flow into the Gulf unchecked. But there's been only one other problem in two months, despite the robots' busy task.
Joy of joysticks
"They are very active and they are playing a very vital role in everything we do," BP spokesman Mark Salt said. "People can't be down there."
"Pilots" operate the robots from comfortable-looking, La-Z-Boy-type chairs. On the left armrest of each is a joystick that moves the robot's mechanical arm. On the right, is the joystick that maneuvers the machine through the water. In front of the pilot are 11 monitors, DVD video recorders and a sonar screen.
"It's the most fun job in the world," said Jeffrey Harris of Oceaneering International Inc., which is providing about 14 robots to work on the Gulf spill. The joysticks resemble the ones used in fighter jets and, he joked, they're "a little more sophisticated than your Gameboy."
The most popular remotely operated vehicle — or ROV — being used in the project is the Millennium, an 11.5-foot-long, 8,000-pound, rectangular, foam-topped device with human-like arms that has the added benefit of wrists that can rotate continuously like a drill.
"It's like a construction worker," Harris said. "But it's got a lot more whistles and bells than a construction worker."
Robots key to drilling
The devices using fiber optic technology are what allow the oil industry to drill and remove oil and natural gas from thousands of feet under the water. While a human cannot work in underwater pressures of more than 1,000 feet, these robots have been able to operate in depths of up to 18,000 feet — and for unlimited time, as long as parts don't fail.
Robots have been part of offshore drilling since the 1980s, said Andrew Bowen, director of the National Deep Submergence Facility at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The technology was first developed by the U.S. Department of Defense to examine downed Soviet submarines.
Since then, the technology has advanced greatly, with the ROVs moving from relatively simple, basketball-shaped devices to the massive boxes of today.
But in 30 years in the industry, Bowen said, he's never seen them used quite like this.
They're helping to hook up fluid connectors, hoses and plumbing; install newly developed oil recovery systems; and build the relief wells that are considered the best hope of stopping the gusher.
Bowen and other scientists also have submersibles monitoring oil flow, gathering data on the ecosystem and sea life and surveying the underwater plume of dispersed oil.
The challenge now is getting the robots to perform new tasks in real time, without the benefit of prior testing or tweaking.
Said Bowen: "It is going to require a range of new techniques and technologies developed and tested and put into service so we are far better prepared to respond in the case, heaven forbid, where we are confronted again with a situation like this."
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