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Robot subs deployed in search for oil under gulf's surface

MANATEE, Fla. — Scientists at Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium on Monday were in the process of launching the first of three torpedo-shaped robots equipped to hunt for oil underwater in the Gulf of Mexico.

The robots, measuring about six feet long and with little wings, have in the past been used to search for red tide, but now will be hunting for oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, according to Gary Kirkpatrick, a Mote senior scientist.

Monday, Mote was in the process of launching one called “RU22.” It is on loan from Rutgers University, he said.

Its findings will be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA, the U.S. Navy and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which are tracking oil spilled from the runaway Deepwater Horizon oil well.

Other universities, including the University of South Florida, are also in the process of putting out similar robots that will work in conjunction with those at Mote, USF officials said.

“These are automated small underwater vehicles that can travel around under their own propulsion, their own guidance, so we tell them where we want them to go, give them a set of coordinates, like a sailor might do out in the ocean, and then we cut it loose, put it in the water and let it go on its own,” Kirkpatrick said.

“It has a GPS antenna in it, so it can tell exactly where it is, plus a satellite telephone component in it, so it can call us back from anywhere in the world,” he said.

The crafts, formally named “Autonomous Underwater Vehicles,” or AUVs, are also called “gliders,” Kirkpatrick said. Each little craft is worth about $100,000, along with about another $15,000 worth of oil detectors in the craft’s instrument package, he said.

Mote’s two craft are named “Waldo” and “Nemo.”

The loaner, RU22, will run a survey line from approximately 20 miles off Venice, Fla., to about 100 miles off the coast, Kirkpatrick said.

Mote scientists hope to deploy another one just north of the Florida Keys, with a third slated to patrol parallel to the coast from Tampa Bay to Charlotte Harbor, Kirkpatrick said.

“We’re trying to keep an eye out for oil or dispersant, or a mixture of that, underwater,” said Kirkpatrick. “Satellite and airplanes and boats and stuff can visually see oil on the surface, but can’t see below the surface, so we don’t have a very good idea of where the oil or dispersants might be moving.”

In a locally-famous incident last year, Waldo went AWOL. After almost two weeks of silence, Mote researchers were happy when he finally did report in. Kirkpatrick said the robot may have become snagged in a net or rope on the sea bottom, and it just took time for the craft to work its way out.

About 210,000 gallons of oil or more are escaping daily from the Deepwater Horizon well off Louisiana after a fire and explosion at BP’s drilling rig and well there last month.

Kirkpatrick said the little gliders do not travel very fast, but have long endurance. They generally report back every couple of hours, he said.

“They go somewhere in the order of 15-20 miles in a day, but can stay out for 30 days or more,” he said. “They run on batteries, after awhile the batteries run down.”

“An important part of what they do, is every few hours — we can program that in — they come to the surface, and put their antenna out of the water, and call back, tell us where they are, what they’ve found, check to see if there’s anything different we want them to do,” he said.

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