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5 Improvements in Offshore Oil Drilling


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Robotic Subs on Every Oil Rig

In deepwater oil drilling, robots are the roughnecks who get the most difficult jobs done. Oil companies have been using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) -- basically, robot submarines that can descend to depths where no human diver could survive -- for more than 30 years, to do everything from turn bolts to close valves. Today's state-of-the-art ROV is a $1 million, box-shaped steel craft the size of a small car, equipped with mechanical arms that can lift up to a ton in weight. It's outfitted with video cameras that transmit live images from the dark depths to pilots in the control rooms of surface vessels thousands of feet above. At a typical Gulf oil rig, it's not uncommon to find half a dozen ROVs and several vessels for support crews working on various tasks.

But in the event of a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon blowout, ROVs become even more crucial. An unprecedented 14 robots worked on the emergency effort simultaneously. Some attempted to close the BOP's shear rams, while others hooked up hoses and plumbing, installed oil recovery devices and built the relief well to stop the gusher. Still others monitored the underwater plume of oil floating in the Gulf and gathered data on its effect on the Gulf's ecosystem, according to HuffPost.

The new federal regulations require that each oil rig have its own ROV, and crew members trained to operate it, so they can rush into action immediately in an emergency. Additionally, the feds now require BOPs to be equipped so that, in the event they fail to work, an ROV can take over and use its shear rams to shut off the pipe. To make sure that the robotic craft can work the BOP, the government is requiring more extensive testing of the machines, including having the ROV dive and operate shear rams at the sea bottom.