Imagine trying to flick a switch with a set of claw-like fingers from one mile
away via an umbilical tether that is connected to a robotic arm. Now,
imagine performing this delicate operation under the groaning weight of
2,400 PSI — that's over one ton of pressure per square inch. Throw in a
couple of other unimaginable factors like operating in a claustrophobic inky
blackness with temperatures hovering around 34°F, and contending with a
sea current swaying your arm back and forth.
© BP p.l.c unless
Sounds Pretty Arduous,
Oh, and there's one more thing: That switch you need
to flick is connected to a sunken oil rig's blowout preventer.
A blowout preventer (BOP) that is guarding a wellhead
which is leaking roughly 5,000 barrels (210,000
gallons/795,000 liters) of crude oil per day. Yep. Just
another day in the life of the undersea remotely-operated
The only difference with this particular scenario is that
this "day in the life" has stretched into weeks as the tragic
explosion and sinking of the Transocean Deepwater Horizon
oil rig [officially known as British Petroleum (BP) oil well
Mississippi Canyon 252 or MC252] approximately 40 miles
NOTE: This article is not a critique of the Deepwater
Horizon oil spill disaster response nor is it an indictment of
the offshore oil drilling industry's environmental impact.
56 SERVO 07.2010
off the southern coast of Louisiana between April 20-22,
2010 resulted in an uncapped, leaking wellhead.
Send in the Robots
Within hours of this tragedy, BP had launched a small
fleet of remotely-operated vehicles (or ROVs) in an
underwater rescue attempt at triggering the recalcitrant
BOP. Using pliers, saws, and claws, the ROVs vainly tried to
flick that magical switch on the blowout preventer that
would cap the wellhead.
After several days of poking and prodding, the ROVs
were able to effectively shut off one of the three leaks
emanating from the destroyed oil rig. Unfortunately, this
leak was associated with a hole inside the crumpled main
riser pipe which transports crude oil from the wellhead to
the oil rig on the ocean's surface and not the BOP.
Following on this minor success, BP increased its ROV
armada to 12 robots and began working on three different
attempts at stemming the flow of oil from the wellhead.