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ROVs: The paramedics of the Gulf June 2, 2010

Posted by emiliekopp in industry robot spotlight.
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We might as well be drilling on Mars. Ever since offshore drilling in the Gulf had been approved by government, oil companies have reached record depths of operation under the ocean surface. How is this possible? Robots, of course. More specifically, Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs).

These unmanned systems are able to reach depths that are impossible to reach as humans. Since we are limited to atmospheric diving, our bodies have never ventured to depths beyond ~2,500 fsw (feet of salt water). And anyone crazy enough to make it even that far must be crammed inside a diving container like Oceaneering’s WASP.

I once had the opportunity to check one of these suits out in person when I interned at Oceaneering. Once the diving cap had been closed, I felt like I had been stuffed in a refrigerator with 2 cm of wiggle room. I cannot even fathom what it might be like to dangle in that sardine can thousands of feet underwater. Keep in mind, 80% of the Gulf’s oil, and 45% of its natural gas comes from operations in more than 1000 feet of water  – classified as “deepwater.”

ROVs, on the other hand, can withstand the pressure depth and do not require atmospheric diving conditions. These tethered robots act as our eyes, ears and hands under the sea. ROV pilots sit at mission control consoles that would make you think you’re in a video game. Pilots rely on several video feeds, joysticks, knobs, buttons and more to steer and maneuver the robot and operate its manipulators. Completing seemingly simple tasks, like turning a crank on a wellhead, is extremely tricky and requires hundreds of hours of experience and practice to master.

Fleets of ROVs have roamed the Gulf, monitoring oil well conditions, dredging sea floors to lay pipeline, and more recently, repairing/cleaning up when things go wrong.

The Gulf Oil Crisis
According to wsj.com BP now plans to try to contain the flow of oil from the leak with a lower marine riser package (LMRP), or cap. The operation involves a lot of cutting and removing of broken, tangled drilling pipe, called riser. ROV’s equipped with diamond saws and gargantuan cutting shears must trim the gnarled remains of riser that sits atop the blowout preventer. By making a clean cut, BP can make another attempt at capping the valve and siphoning the spewing oil to the surface.

However, BP officials say “there is no certainty” that the operation will work, considering a task like this has never been carried out in 5,000 feet of water. Now I’m beginning to appreciate why this entire project has the name “Deepwater Horizon.”

Teams of ROVs and pilots are now working around the clock to begin Phase 1 of the LMRP containment system. Can robots save the day? Will ROVs be our paramedics of the sea? I sure hope so. I suppose time will tell.

View a live video feed from one of the ROVs helping cap the well in the Gulf Oil Crisis

To learn more about ROV design, simulation and pilot training, you can read these technical case studies on ni.com:

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