Underwater Robots Big Part of Gulf Recovery Effort

As workers in the Gulf of Mexico look for ways to stop the flow of oil from last week’s blow-out on the Deepwater Horizon, high-tech underwater robots five thousand feet below are the eyes and ears of the operation. As Jack Williams reports, the remotely operated vehicles, or ROV’s, are the only connection between the surface of the water and the bottom of the ocean.

“Anything past 1000 feet in today’s oil depths of 10,000 feet of water requires ROV intervention.”

Scott Dingman is the president and CEO of Delta Marine Technologies in Montgomery, just west of Conroe. His company consults with operators in the Gulf on the best ways to use ROV’s in their operations.

“These machines average $4.5 to $5 million per unit and you’ll have two of these units on a vessel, so just the standard vessel offshore and on location probably has upward of $10 million worth of ROV package on it.”  

Dingman says highly skilled operators sit in what looks like a cockpit on the deck of ship, rig or platform.   

“A lot of monitors, survey equipment, things of this nature because they can’t see. They’ll be flying the ROV’s. So we have a pilot and usually they have a co-pilot or technician and they usually have a third person out on the LARS, the launch and recovery system.”

The ROV’s are tethered and descend to depths of up to 10,000 feet inside a container. When the container reaches the work site, it opens like a garage and the ROV emerges, ready to use hydraulic arms, video equipment, fiber optics and other high tech electronics that feed information to the surface. Dingman says it isn’t easy to maneuver in challenging

“These work-class ROV’s are probably the size of a small VW Beetle, maybe just a tad smaller and you’re trying to get in there to reach a valve or something. Especially in this situation where there could be a large amount of debris over the location. When they develop these systems, the keep access in mind, but with all this debris there, who know if they can get in there.”

“They are the eyes and ears as well as the hands and feet of any work that is going to go on down there.”

Jim Wagner is Delta Marine Technology’s Senior Vice President of Operations. 

“The ROV’s are down there right now collecting data, collecting information so that they can properly assess what they actually have on the sea floor. From there they will develop their plan and they’ll move forward with that plan utilizing the same ROV’s to connect rigging, to ensure that when they’re lifting that they don’t damage something else.” 

There are at least 4 ROV’s involved in the Deepwater Horizon recovery operation. Wagner says the vehicles could also play a key role in any effort to cap the leak or recover any of the oil that’s escaping.