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ROVs Struggle To Save The Sea

May 15, 2010

Are Robots Willing to Give Their Life to Save Us?

We have more coverage this week on the Gulf Oil Spill fix and the role of ROVs in the mitigation and solution to the problem. People and machines are working overtime under great stress to stop the leak and minimize the damage to the environment and the economy of the region.

This disaster has been of a great human cost, too:  11 men died in the explosion of the rig. There are still many dangerous jobs involved in energy exploration and extraction. We lost 29 souls in the April 5, Massey Big Branch Mine.  Throughout time countless people have been killed and injured doing hazardous work.

In this post we explore the past and what scares and moves us. We discuss the Three Laws of Robotics that define what robots should do for us. Finally there’s a report on ROV’s role in stopping the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill.

As a kid I can remember a thrilling TV show about the dangers in tunnel construction that has stuck with me all these years. And like the old Flash Gordon series characters the Clay People it involves people creepily emerging from cave walls or horrifically sucked into tunnel walls.

Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars

Flash and gang get an audience with the King of the Clay People

William Bendix, of “Life of Riley” fame, in addition to many great films, did a lot of television work, including shows such as the 1956 Screen Directors’ Playhouse TV drama, “High Air.” In this unforgettable show, Bendix portrayed Dennis Hopper’s sandhog father who wants to discourage his son from following in his footsteps as a laborer digging tunnels under the rivers of N.Y. City . The work is dirty and dangerous.

William Bendix, 1946 Paramount Pictures studio photo

In the show’s moving climax, there’s a breach in the tunnel’s side, endangering all the workers. Bendix heroically uses his own body to plug the hole to give the other men, including his headstrong son, time to escape disaster. The men escape, the tunnel collapses, but Bendix is horribly sucked into the river. Miraculously he somehow survives and is fished from the river.

Happy ending. Sandhog Bendix is a hero and Dennis Hopper wised-up, left tunneling and took an easy ride to Hollywood.

What got me musing about such things was a conversation with a client, Scott Schroeder, president of Mega Tech of Oregon. We were talking about ROVs working on the spill and ways they were being used to stop it. Scott, a very smart fellow, wondered why ROVs weren’t directed to jam themselves into the pipes plugging the leak.

Not a bad idea. Not practical with the typical ROVs working on the spill. But, what if there were pipe-sized ROVs specifically designed for that purpose? The ROVs would sacrifice themselves by entering the breached pipe, penetrating the pipe snaking their way like a living machine suppository. Once they have reached a safe place then expanding their bodies to seal the leak. Can you say Hans Brinker, the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike? Or, like a  sacrificial anode, the ROV’s job would be to selflessly submit itself for certain destruction to reduce damage to its environment.

It wouldn’t be out of the line of duty for robots to give up their life to aid humans. After all the first job for UAVs was to be used as targets for military practice. Back in 1982, I was fortunate to interview Isaac Asimov in his NY home. We discussed these very issues and principles behind his Three Laws of Robotics which originated with Asimov and publisher John W. Campbell in 1940.

Read on to learn about The Three Laws of Robotics and ROVs in the Gulf…

I was doing a series of interviews for my article called “The Pioneers of Robotics” for the International Encyclopedia of Robotics. And I was able to wangle a one-on-one with the great writer. He was very resistive to spending time away from his typewriter and was cranky about any interruption to what he most loved to do, which was writing.

I will, as promised, soon post the audio of the interview. Once he warmed-up we had a jolly time talking about robotics and his career. He was older than shown in the video clip below. But, he still used the funny pronunciation of “robut” that some East Coast people do. However, I was not about to correct Isaac Asimov on how to say robot.

The Three Laws of Robotics

Dr Asimov describes the three laws of robotics.

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

In any case, the ROVs working on the Gulf spill have not yet been called upon to break the Third Law. But they have been working arduously along with their human counterparts to seal the spill and save the seas.

Here’s a summary from AP and a good animation of the operation…

BP PLC technicians were gingerly moving joysticks to guide deep-sea robots and thread the 6-inch tube with a rubber stopper into the 21-inch pipe spewing oil from the ocean floor. That work continued Saturday morning for a second day, BP said.

NewsAnimationHD — May 14, 2010 — Illustrates the attempt to stop the flow of oil from the leaking riser by inserting a tube with a stopper on the end. The tube will be positioned using underwater ROV “robots”. The intent is to plug the inside of the riser with the stopper and siphon the oil up to a waiting surface tanker.

Source: Associated Press,, BP

PORT FOURCHON, La. – It is a job that requires the expertise of a rocket scientist and the precision of a surgeon.

Engineers are racing to stem the disastrous oil leak a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico, relying on a series of highly technical — and in some cases unprecedented — maneuvers.

They have deployed an armada of remote-controlled submarine robots that are essentially turning wrenches to try to repair malfunctioning equipment and cap the leak while spraying chemicals from a wand into the muck to disperse the oil.

Oceaneering International operates many of the ROVs under a contract with BP. Oceaneering is a global oilfield provider of engineered services and products primarily to the offshore oil and gas industry, with a focus on deepwater applications. To see more details and some great videos go to their ROV site.

Oceaneering Subsea Systems Graphic

Gulf Oil Spill Highlights the Increasing Dependence on Deep-Sea Robots

As oil rigs move into ever deeper waters, however, engineers will increasingly depend on subs that can operate autonomously, says Andy Bowen, a research specialist in applied ocean physics and engineering at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. Humans will act more as supervisors of the work these autonomous underwater vehicles(AUVs) do, rather than directly controlling thrusters, arms and other equipment on the sub. Read how remotely operated subs have met with both success and failure in stanching the flow of crude, and the oil industry may need to rely on completely autonomous vehicles in this Scientific American article.

In other news…


Oregon Manufacturing Awards


“Portland Business Journal presents the Oregon/SW Washington Manufacturing Awards, recognizing manufacturing companies that continue to drive our region’s economy through innovation and strategic evolution.”


1.Manufacturing Company of the Year Award: This award is for manufacturing companies, private or public, in one of three categories: Small (Under $10M), Medium ($10M – $50M), Large (Over $50M).

Read more: Portland Business Journal: Nomination

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike permalink
    July 16, 2010 5:35 am

    What was the pipe/probe that was sticking in the oil plume? It looked like it was blowing bubbles.

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