BP via AP
This image made from a BP video June 2 shows underwater robots and other equipment swarming a blowout preventer, bottom left, as oil rises at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
By
updated 6/24/2010 10:08:25 PM ET 2010-06-25T02:08:25

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."

BP via AP
This April 22 photo provided by the US Coast Guard shows a robot submarine attempting to activate a blowout preventer at the Deepwater Horizon well head. A subcity of underwater robots are working to help contain the runaway oil leak that began when the Deepwater Horizon blew up April 20, killing 11 workers.

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."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
  2. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
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    Slideshow (64) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  3. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
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    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  4. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
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    Slideshow (53) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 1
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    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion

Video: Despite cleanup, Gulf beaches overwhelmed by oil

  1. Transcript of: Despite cleanup, Gulf beaches overwhelmed by oil

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: It's almost hard to believe. The Gulf of Mexico right now is full of oil, full of vessels and over 30,000 cleanup personnel, and yet just before we came on the air tonight, we received word that a weather system approaching from the south is now officially a tropical depression . Now, if this thing should spool up into a severe storm, a tropical storm or, at worst, a hurricane, it will mean disaster on top of disaster for the gulf, for the environment there and the people there. And in that region today we learned more about the extent of the oil invasion thus far. In a moment, from our friends at The Weather Channel , we'll get the very latest on what to expect from this storm and we'll look at how they're preparing in Louisiana tonight. First, though, to Mark Potter in Pensacola , Florida , to start us off. Mark , good evening.

    MARK POTTER reporting: And good evening to you, Brian . Not only is the oil fouling the top of the beach, it's also buried below. And so all you have to do is dig down here to find huge globs of oil, just like this, all along this beach, despite cleanup efforts day and night. The cleanup in Pensacola Beach went through the evening and into the wee hours after the shoreline there was hit hard by oil two days ago. At night, temperatures are cooler and the oil is firmer and easier to pick up.

    Unidentified Man: We're going to set up right here on this -- on this water's edge...

    POTTER: Using sand-sifting machines as well as shovels, workers were able to remove most of the tar balls and oil patches covering the beach in the tourist area. But in daylight, there's still a stain along the water's edge and lots of oil buried beneath the sand that washed ashore on the high tide. Scientists worry this oil could still be toxic to wildlife and people's skin and take years to degrade.

    Professor RICHARD SNYDER (University of West Florida): Just getting it buried in the sand alone is going to make it last a long time. And it can continually be re-exposed. But if it gets down to where's there no oxygen it'll be around a lot longer, even in just a few years.

    POTTER: It's a problem also feared in Orange Beach , Alabama , where once again oil carried by the waves is washing ashore near the hotels and condos. Boats close to the beach use booms to try to stop it, but most of the oil got past them. When this first happened here two weeks ago, the beaches were cleaned; but now the oil is back.

    Mr. TONY KENNON (Orange Beach, Alabama Mayor): Like a never-ending hurricane, you know. With a hurricane it comes through, 12 hours later, you're cleaning up, getting ready to go and, you know, you're going to get back online. With this, it's just stagnant, you know, it's just you really don't feel like you can ever get ahead. You're just treading water.

    POTTER: Local officials fear this will be a recurring problem as oil comes ashore more regularly now along the Florida / Alabama coast. Mark Potter , NBC News, Pensacola Beach , Florida .

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