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Autonomous underwater vehicle to study Deepwater Horizon oil spill


May 31, 2010

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With the latest attempt to stem the oil flow from the Deepwater Horizon oil well by pumping heavy drilling liquids into the well having failed, there is still no end in sight to the disaster that began more than a month ago. To help shed some light on where oil is spilling beneath the ocean surface and to aid biologists and others understand the effects of this catastrophic event, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s (MBARI’s) Division of Marine Operations has sent a high-tech robotic submersible to the oily waters of the Gulf.

Under an agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), MBARI’s autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) was launched into the waters of the Gulf for the first time on May 28 from the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter. Although there’s no shortage of satellite and aircraft imagery showing the extent of the spill at the surface, the AUV will help researchers understand the nature and extent of any plumes of oil that may be hidden beneath the surface of the ocean.

AUV’s are robotic, untethered submersibles that are programmed at the surface, then navigate through the water on their own, collecting data as they go. The MBARI AUV can measure physical characteristics of the water, such as temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen, detect chlorophyll from microscopic marine algae, and measure concentrations of small particles (or oil droplets) in the water.

The MBARI AUV is unique in that it carries "gulper" samplers that can collect up to ten 1.8-liter water samples while traveling through the water (or through the plume in this case) – and gives the vehicle its nickname of “the Gulper”. The AUV also uses cutting-edge artificial intelligence software to decide where to go and when to collect its water samples. Engineers can program the on-board computers to help the AUV find a plume and then map its boundaries, as well as to take water samples both within and outside the plume.

The Gunter will sail to the vicinity of the well head and begin a systematic survey using its 18 and 38 kHz sonar to define the shape and extent of the underwater plume. University of New Hampshire Joint Hydrographic Center scientists onboard will explore the feasibility of using mid-water mapping sonar to image the submerged plume in combination with new software that could result in 3-D images of what is happening underneath the surface.

If potential plumes are identified, the Gunter will deploy the Gulper to take discrete water samples at various depths to allow precise characterization of any oil, dispersants, or other substances in the plume. These samples may also be subjected to DNA analysis to determine what types of algae, bacteria, or other microorganisms are present.

This MBARI AUV can dive to 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) below the surface - deep enough to collect water samples near the seafloor in the vicinity of the oil spill. The vehicle typically follows a "roller-coaster" path through the water, which allows its instruments to monitor a cross-section of the ocean.

The MBARI team is excited by the prospect that their vehicle may be useful in understanding the Gulf oil spill.

"MBARI's AUV and gulper system provides a surveillance and sample collection capability that is complementary to other tools being deployed to understand the fate of the subsurface plume of oil and dispersant." said MBARI President and Chief Executive Officer Chris Scholin. "Coordinating this response in partnership with government and academic institutions is not only important for providing much-needed fundamental information on the spill and its impacts, but also serves as a valuable learning experience for understanding how to respond to such incidents in the future."

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Here\'s an idea for plugging the leak. Use Smooth-On\'s Smooth-Cast 300Q (Q for Quick setting) urethane resin instead of the drilling mud.

It\'s a 1:1 mix ratio, high strength (3,000 PSI tensile strength) plastic that sets 30 seconds after it\'s mixed. Within 5 minutes it\'s hard enough to remove from a mold.

In the leaking well, it wouldn\'t be removed.

Cover the holes in the pipe with 1/4\" hardware cloth (it\'s like super heavy duty window screen) then shoot in large amounts of both components of the Smooth-Cast 300Q through the two hoses currently being used for the mud.

The turbulence should mix the resin and it might catch on and build up on any irregularities inside the blowout preventer and the pipe. That\'s why the hardware cloth, to catch some of the hardening resin as it exits.

If that\'d work, it\'d be like a fast buildup of plaque in an artery, eventually choking off the flow above where the plastic is injected. After the outlet is stopped, the resin would force downwards until it set enough to block more coming in.

Facebook User

I think you would need tens of thousands of gallons of resin, which would harden before it made it down the 5000 feet of flexible tubing.

It\'s nearly unfathomable the extreme pressures and flows of this gusher...


I say we nuke the site from orbit. It\'s the only way to be sure.

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