As those in the industry know, offshore drilling down in the deep waters of the ocean might as well be outer space. In fact, according to Mark Campbell, manufacturing manager at Oceaneering International, it’s even harsher than outer space. They call this zone “inner space,” and knowing what it looks like down there is thanks to a small robot called Millennium.
While the images that come back from these little underwater robots is crystal clear, it’s important to remember that they’re actually thousands of feet deep in the ocean. These cameras were instrumental when it came to the BP blowout of 2010. Without them, mechanics would have been lost.
Besides that, it’s important to remember that at these depths, usually a mile or more, the water pressure is so intense it would flatten a human being in no time. “We’re the eyes,” says Campbell, who worked on a professional race-car team and in the aerospace industry before turning his eyes to the deep ocean, which he sees as a much bigger challenge. “There’s no other way to see what’s going on down there.”
Without the little robot, no one would know exactly what’s going on down there, whether that means initially drilling for oil or having to fix a blowout like back in 2010.
Still an alien world
Although we like to think we know what goes on down in the deep blue sea, human beings have charted less than 1 percent of the ocean’s floor. For all we know we might as well be on Mars. Some argue this is good enough reasons not to go poking around down there, while others say it’s exactly the reason to find out more.
And putting the Deepwater Horizon, BP blowout of 2010, the industry did have a clean track record for more than 30 years. As oil reserves dwindle on land and in already explored shallower waters, it’s mankind’s nature to push on to new frontiers.
Companies like Campbell’s Oceaneering, a great example of an oil company working hand in hand with marine biologists.
In fact, scientists known less about what goes on at the bottom of the ocean floor than they do about outer space. While man went to the moon in 1969, he has still yet to go all the way into the ocean’s deepest, darkest depths. It wasn’t even until that long ago that mankind acknowledged there could be life that far down into the ocean.
Those people who study the depths of ocean know it affectionately as “inner space,” because it might as well be on another plant. “With all the rovers and things on the moon,” says Lisa Levin, professor of biological oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, “I think it’s reasonable to say we’ve seen more of the moon than the deep sea.
“Every time we go, we discover something new and astonishing: fluorescent sharks, new types of bioluminescence, new types of animals—you name it,” says Edie Widder, CEO and senior scientist at ORCA, the Ocean Research & Conservation Association. “It’s pretty incredible and beautiful really.”
Scientists are constantly discovering new species of fish, and even some believed to have gone extinct millions of years ago.
With what little we know a hundred years ago, scientists were sure there couldn’t be life more than a few hundred feet deep. They couldn’t have been more wrong. “We used to think it was fairly monotonous and homogenous and quiet and muddy and dark—and it turns out that that’s not exactly true,” Levin says.
Oil drilling on Mars?
Well, not exactly. But for all intents and purposes, it might as well be. So what’s all this got to do with oil drilling down in the murky depths? Well, without marine science we wouldn’t know what goes on miles down below the surface of the oceans, and without oil drilling expeditions we wouldn’t have the purpose for continued exploration.
As this stirring around in the deep blue sea and building of robots is expensive, and without a stated goal it’s impossible to see how some of this technology like the Millennium robot would ever have been manufactured at all. New technologies for deepwater drilling and marine science often work hand in hand.
For Campbell, the Millennium is extremely versatile, which is key when you go poking your nose around more than a mile into the ocean. The shape of the body is rectangular and mechanical hands make it possible to not only observe but manipulate the environment as well.
While these robots are made to handle many different types of tasks, Campbell, with twelve years experience under his belt, knows how important having actual eyes on the scene is, just like in the case of the 2010 BP blowout.
Before BP made any decisions of fixing the blowout, Millennium was the one that saw where exactly the pipe was leaking.
Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University who has worked with remotely operated vehicles in his research, says while these robots are great tools, they do in fact have their limitations. “You pass a lot of agonizing hours watching somebody try to do something at the end of a cable a mile long, down in the deep, dark ocean,” he says. “They just need to turn one little bolt and it can take hours, literally, to do something that would take a few seconds to do on the land with human hands.”
Deep down into the depths
Still, as helpful these robots are for oil drilling, they have their limitations. The BP Deepwater Horizon well was drilled in 5000 feet of water. What that means is that the drilling itself went much further into the earth’s crust, well beyond where even robot eyes can see. The Shell Oil Perdido rig reaches 8000 feet down into the ocean.
Deepwater drillers stand by the practice. “It is a challenge. It is a frontier area. I don’t want to diminish that,” says David Dismukes, associate director of Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies. “But to suggest that it is reckless is not entirely accurate.”
Updates to deepwater robot technology are always improving. Right now an ROV can cost anywhere from $3.5 million to $6 million. These are no small piece of machinery. They can weigh up to 4 tons. That’s twice as much as the average car. Just like some technologies send images from outer space, these robots give us a view into a world we would otherwise never be able to see. For some, it might as well be outer space.
For offshore drilling, the oil and gas industry and maritime professions often come together to get the job done right. To find out more about how the two work together check out the International Community for Maritime and Ocean Professionals at SNAME.org.
…original content by PPE