Preventing Arctic Oil Spills with Rapid Response Robots

LRAUV oil detection

As sea ice continues to melt in the Arctic and oil exploration expands in the region, the possibility of an oil spill occurring under ice is higher than ever. But how first responders will deal with oil trapped under ice in such an extreme and remote environment is a huge unresolved question.

“With the opening of the Northwest Passage a few years ago and more commercial ships routinely traveling through the area, there have been concerns among various government agencies that there’s no real infrastructure in place to respond to an oil spill below the ice,” said Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) engineer Amy Kukulya. “From a logistics standpoint, it’s very challenging to get resources to the Arctic.”

Kukulya is leading multiagency collaboration aimed at developing cutting-edge sensors and autonomous robot capabilities that will help improve oil spill responders’ situational awareness and decision-making during an emergency. “As oceanographers, we see a critical need for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that can survey spills under ice over long distances,” she said.

As part of the effort, she and her colleagues deployed a series of AUVs in late August off the coast of Santa Barbara, California to test the vehicles’ oil spill detection capabilities for rapid response during a real-world maritime oil spill. The field program featured two complementary AUVs, a REMUS-600 outfitted with custom oil sniffing and sampling capabilities, and a Long Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (LRAUV), a new class of Arctic AUVs funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to provide a fast and persistent oil spill response for ice covered oceans.

The latest model of the LRAUV, which is still being developed at WHOI in conjunction with Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) engineers, is designed specifically to detect oil spills under ice. It can operate continuously for more than two weeks over a distance of 620 miles (1,000 kilometers). WHOI’s director of the Center for Marine Robotics (CMR), James Bellingham, remarked that “Our goal is to provide the United States Coast Guard (USCG) with greater awareness in the event of a real-world spill and the ability to understand a incident while there is still time to react.”

Previous field tests saw the team use a green, biodegradable dye in the ocean to simulate an oil plume. The LRAUV successfully tracked patches of the dye for hours as it drifted through the water, surfacing every few minutes to transmit data for review and analysis by the researchers. Recent tests of the LRAUV’s capabilities had the team conduct a simulated oil spill using real oil. The site has naturally-occurring oil seeps, from which an estimated 20 to 25 tons of oil are emitted from cracks in the seafloor each day. 

During the simulated oil spill, the team tested out new gear on the vehicle, including a holographic camera system and a new WHOI “water gulper” that collects up to a dozen water samples per mission. They also integrated the Robot Operating System (ROS) onto a ‘backseat’ computer for autonomous behavior adaptations.

Beyond cutting-edge technology itself, another success factor in moving the project forward to date has been the highly collaborative and multidisciplinary team approach by the engineers and scientists involved.

Lessons learned from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill also taught Kukulya and her team a great deal about the challenges of rapid response. The speed at which first responders could deploy AUVs in the Arctic remains a question, but Kukulya says that in addition to its strength in technology development, WHOI shines in the area of marine operations.

“Eventually, I can envision WHOI becoming the go-to place in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic or anywhere, as well as for rapid-response technology for harmful algae blooms, marine microplastics, or any environmental anomaly in the ocean that needs discrete sampling. We have systems right now in the lab that are ready to respond.”

For a more extensive report of this effort please visit WHOI’s official site as well as the video below.

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