One sure way to bungle BP's previously effective oil leak containment cap system: crash a 4-ton robotic submarine into it.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened today, according to BP and the U.S. Coast Guard.
At around 9 a.m. local time, the thoroughly beleaguered gulf oil spill response team was forced to suspend its containment cap operations when "a discharged of liquids was observed from a diverter valve on the drillship Discoverer Enterprise." (Last week the same ship was struck by lightning, also temporarily halting the effort.)
Later, at a hastily convened press conference, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen revealed that the liquid was, in fact, "some kind of a gas" and that "out of an abundance of caution," the crew temporarily removed the cap. The whole incident, he said, stemmed from one embarrassing source:
They have indicated that the problem was a remotely operated vehicle that had been around the (inaudible) package that bumped into one of those vents that allows the excess oil to come out....
They are checking the containment cap right now that there are no hydrates in the containment cap. They will attempt to reinstall the containment cap and begin producing later on today. If there are hydrates they will probably have to rerun the pipeline, and that will take a considerable amount longer.
This, even as BP heralds its remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs for short, as a "major benefit" to the cleanup operation, citing the fact that they are equipped with a number of tools -- video cameras, sonar, robotic arms and other devices compatible with the well equipment -- that allow them to "carry out intervention without the need for human divers." That's helpful, since the Macondo well that's leaking all the oil into the Gulf of Mexico is located nearly a mile below the surface, where no human divers can go. Plus, ROV technology been around for 30 years, in which time it has become more sophisticated and reliable.
Who or what is to blame for such mishaps? It's not necessarily the ROV operators or "pilots" -- highly trained technicians who can make up to $80,000 a year with experience. (Side note: BP founded a program in 2002 to "turn as many ROV pilots as possible into part-time marine biologists.")
Instead, look to the demanding conditions themselves.
Take Oceaneering International, "a global oilfield provider of engineered services and products," which won two contracts from BP to provide observational and working-class ROVs for the gulf cleanup effort. Just last week, Kevin Kerins, the company's vice president of worldwide ROVs, explained some of the inherent problems they were facing in the gulf:
"You've got all these things hanging in the water. You've got shears, you've got ROVs. You've got to be sure all these things don't get wrapped up in each other," he was quoted as saying by KHOU 11 News.
In addition, Kerins noted that while multiple crews of ROV pilots are working round the clock to contain the flow of oil into the Gulf, "fatigue can be a factor," especially since "there's going to be one guy who's a hotshot pilot. He's very good and they're going to want him on the stick all the time."
Was today's collision the result of a messy overlap of equipment and exhaustion, or something else entirely? BP isn't saying. But you can be sure that before the spill is over, BP's ROVs will certainly be in the news again.
Until then, you can learn more about them via the following video, Oceaneering's tech specs or the unofficial BP ROV fan club, which observes that the devices have endearing robot nicknames such as Little Geek, BOP, R2, the Saw and Claw.
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