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Remotely Operated Vehicles: History, Waldos & Howard Hughes

July 8, 2010

ROVs History and Future – Part 1

The Gulf oil spill has attractted a lot of attention to ROVs and other subsea technologies. Innovational Musings has been covering ROV topics over the last several weeks. The next few posts we will be exploring some interesting stories about the history and future of ROVs.

ROV’s and UAVs are by-in-large teleoperated (telerobotic) devices that extend and amplify the reach of their human operators. As opposed to robots which are programed to perform tasks without human intervention.

1942 original publication magazine cover

An early innovational example of advanced telerobotics was the “Waldo” created by master science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein originally published in Astounding Magazine in 1942.

Progress is made not just by necessity.  Making it easier is often a prime motivator. In “Time Enough For Love” Heinlein wrote. “Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.”  Machines are designed to make man’s life better and easier.

And Waldo ROVs are working today.

Heinlein signing autographs in 1976

Manipulator arms inside the Hot Bay, Area 25, Nevada Test Site

“In 1945, the company Central Research Laboratories was given the contract to develop a remote manipulator for the Argonne National Laboratory. The intent was to replace devices which manipulated highly radioactive materials from above a sealed chamber or hot cell, with a mechanism which operated through the side wall of the chamber, allowing a researcher to stand normally while working.”

Pioneer ROV “Cutlet” Developed by Royal Navy

A Royal Navy ROV (Cutlet) first used in the 50s to retrieve practice torpedoes and mines

You can see its primitive claw in lower left quadrant.

“In the 1950s the Royal Navy used “Cutlet”, a remotely operated submersible, to recover practice torpedoes.”

“The US Navy funded most of the early ROV technology development in the 1960s into what was then named a “Cable-Controlled Underwater Recovery Vehicle” (CURV). This created the capability to perform deep-sea rescue operation and recover objects from the ocean floor, such as a nuclear bomb lost in the Mediterranean Sea after the 1966 Palomares B-52 crash.” See the ROV history article in Wikipedia.

Continue to learn about Howard Hughes’ Secret ROV Mission to raise a Russian nuclear sub…

Early Hughes Robot Ancestor to Modern ROV

In the late 1950s, Hughes Aircraft Co. developed its Manipulator Operated Robot – MOBOT – for the Atomic Energy Commission

“The Hughes Aircraft Company’s landlocked MOBOT moved out of Atomic Energy Commission laboratories — and evolved into an offshore tool with Shell Oil Company.

Beginning in 1960, Shell Oil Co. took the lead in transforming Hughes Aircraft’s landlocked MOBOT into what would one day become known as an ROV. A series of evolving patents described “a remotely controlled manipulator device for carrying out operations underwater at an assembly position at the top of a well.

Shell successfully used a MOBOT on a wildcat well in 250 feet of water off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., in October 1962. Over the next 10 years, MOBOTs worked on 24 offshore wells – operating to depths of 1,000 feet for extended periods.” Read full article in American Oil & Gas Historical Society

I have to confess to being a fan of the mad genius Howard Hughes. He is The American Dream gone wild. As an individual and as an enterprise Hughes is unmatched in scope and influence, especially in the black arts. Talk about a model for Iron Man, Stan Lee based Stark’s personality on Howard Hughes, explaining, “Howard Hughes was one of the most colorful men of our time. He was an inventor, an adventurer, a multi-millionaire, a ladies man and finally a nutcase.” See Anthony Stark article…

There are many engaging books and movies about Howard and I have touched on a few of Hughes‘ exploits in this blog. And while he is better known as this country’s first self-made billionaire and as The Aviator and the dark prince in American Tabloid. Howard and his companies were involved in oil, aviation, space, medical, film and lots of spook technologies. Including one of the best kept military secrets since the Manhattan Project.

Some twenty-five years after the British Navy experimented with the Cutlet ROV the U.S. Navy, CIA and Howard Hughes scaled the Culet’s bomb recovery mission to Spruce Goose like proportions.

The Hughes Glomar Explorer Secret CIA Spy Ship

The plan was to use a giant claw dangling on the end of a three-mile-long tether to grasp the submarine and raise it into a "moon pool"

The Glomar Explorer

In 1968, a flurry of coded communications alerted the U.S. Navy to the loss of a Soviet Golf-class submarine, an older diesel vessel that had sunk in 17,000 feet of water about 750 miles northwest of Hawaii.

U.S. Intelligence reports soon revealed that an explosion had occurred, probably while the sub was at the surface, but that it was mostly intact – and that it still carried nuclear missiles on board.

A few years later the wealthy eccentric Howard Hughes constructed the Glomar Explorer, an enormous barge built for the ostensible purpose of mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor. Although manganese nodules are real, the mining venture was actually an elaborate hoax. Read more at PBS.

Clementine is such a Musical Name, but the Giant Claw Picked-up a Russian Sub

"Clemetine" the Glomar Explorer's giant claw snatched the Soviet submarine from sea floor.

“The Hughes Glomar Explorer began lifting the K-129 off the sea floor on August 1, 1974, more than three weeks after the ship arrived at the recovery site. It took eight days to slowly winch the remains of the nuclear armed Soviet submarine into the massive hold of the Glomar Explorer, with the sub finally being secured inside the ship on August 8, 1974. The next day, recovery operations were completed and the ship sailed for Hawaii to offload its haul.”  Read recently declassified report on Project Azorian.

There will be more cool and strange stuff in Part 2 of ROVs History & Future, but first you have to see this movie trailer about…

New Documentary on Project Azorian

After more than three decades of secrecy, this incredible story can finally be told, by the men who were there that made it happen together with amazing computer graphic reconstruction, original film footage of Azorian´s actual salvage attempt and new documentary evidence relating to the projects successes and failures, in the Raising of the K-129.

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