One of the most exciting areas of development for underwater remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) is their use in marine research. For decades, purpose-built (and generally large) ROVs like POODLE (the first real ROV, deployed in 1953) were on the forefront of oceanographic research work. Marine scientists did not generally use commercially-developed mass-produced ROVs until relatively recently – mainly because the mass-produced ROVs didn’t exist yet! They exist now, and the unique combination of affordability and standardization ROVs offer is now helping researchers push back the frontiers of knowledge in a number of exciting research fields.
One key area of research is the field of robotics itself – coordinating fleets of tiny ROVs is a new and unprecedented challenge for scientists at sea. Even more challenging is processing the terabytes of data that even a relatively modest quantity of ROVs can collect in a short period of time. A 2015 expedition by the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Falkor to the remote Scott Reef in the Timor Sea, led by a team of University of Sydney scientists, deployed an eclectic flotilla of robotic vehicles, including gliders, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), autonomous surface vessels (ASVs) and Lagrangian floats, and autonomous surface vessels (ASVs). The AUVs were used to take water measurements at different depths, the ASVs and gliders collected data on surface conditions, and the floats measured currents, water salinity and temperature, and other data.
Just in visual imagery alone, the Falkor collected some 400,000 images over a two-week period, about a terabyte every day. To gain insight into the meaning of the data they had collected, the team developed a web-based tool named Squidle, which crowdsources data analysis and lets the general public help teach computers how to interpret visual imagery. (You can learn more about Squidle at https://squidle.acfr.usyd.edu.au/) Another development of note from the Falkor expedition was the creation of a web-based tool to allow researchers to visualize the known positions of an entire fleet of ROVs in real-time using any Internet-connected device, such as a PC or smartphone.
Oceanic research on climate is one of the most critically important areas of science operating today. The challenge of global warming is tightly bound to our understanding of the Earth’s global ocean, and more visually spectacular catastrophic events like tsunamis and hurricanes emphasize the pressing need for deeper understanding of the oceanic climate. As one example, a Wave Glider ROV was collecting routine environmental data in the South China Sea in July of 2014 when it encountered Typhoon Rammasun, a lethal ocean storm with 10-meter high waves and winds approaching 200 miles per hour. The Wave Glider, tiny yet extremely rugged, rode out the storm without trouble and collected amazing data about the behavior of the ocean in response to the event. Fleets of ROVs could collect many times that amount of information, allowing unprecedented progress in areas like storm prediction and tracking. It’s not just data that can be collected – ROVs can retrieve water samples from anywhere in the ocean. (Aquabotix offers a water sample collector on the Endura line.)
The use of ROVs to monitor the health and size of fish populations has been under development for quite some time in the aquaculture field. Now researchers are drawing lessons from that work and applying it to help save the Great Barrier Reef. The GBR, a collection of almost 2000 reefs scattered across more than 130,000 square miles of ocean, faces a number of threats, including climate change and water quality problems, but scientists agree that the incursion of the Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS), a nightmare coral predator, is the Reef’s greatest immediate challenge. Scientists estimate that in the last twenty years, COTS population explosions have led to the destruction of about 40 percent of the Reef’s coral.
Monitoring the COTS populations was an important step, but monitoring alone can’t get anything done. Australians have operated hunting vessels to try to slow the advance of COTS populations, but even killing 400,000 COTS per year, as one anti-COTS diving team has done, is barely holding the COTS threat at a status quo level. Robotics researchers at the Queensland University of Technology, supported by a $750,000 AUS grant from the Google Impact Challenge Australia, have developed an ROV capable of hunting down and annihilating COTS. The prototype, dubbed “COTSBot,” is capable of operating autonomously, cruising a few feet above the coral reef using five integrated thrusters, scanning the surface of the coral and looking for COTS going about their nefarious business. When the robot spots a COTS – with a 99% accuracy rate – it swoops down and uses a robotic arm to inject the creature with a 20 ml vinegar solution, which kills it instantly. By mass deploying COTSBots in threatened areas of the reef, scientists hope not to just stem the incursion of the COTS, but to keep their population down to a manageable level.
The scientific work, both theoretical and applied, that oceangoing ROVs can support is critically important to both the health of the global environment, and to our growing ability to explore and understand the 95+ percent of the oceans that have not yet been genuinely explored. As always, human researchers and explorers will be irreplaceable in those efforts, but the addition of robotic assistance and tools in the form of ROVs will make their work vastly more effective, affordable, and effective.
Ask a remote-operated-vehicle (ROV) aficionado what industries these handy little tools have had the most impact on, and the answers will be varied and interesting. Some will immediately name fisheries and aquaculture, where ROVs let even small operators put mobile, flexible, sensor-enhanced eyes on even their most remote underwater operations. Others would favor the transportation industry, where ROVs make major contributions to port security and vessel hull inspections. Relatively few people, however, unless they had industry knowledge backing them up, would name one of the industries where ROVs have had a major and still growing impact: energy production.
To be sure, the energy market is an enormous and enormously varied set of operations, and it is true that ROVs play a small or nonexistent role in many of the industry’s subfields. Nobody expects ROVs to be a major player in coal mines, for example (though they are handy in investigating flooded sections of mine, a very hazardous condition where nobody wants to risk a human diver…)
There are three basic areas in which ROVs play a major role: installation and investigation of offshore windfarms. Installation and investigation of the hydraulic systems of nuclear plants, and inspections of dams – many types of dams, of course, but most relevant here are the major construction achievements that produce local electrical generating capacity, i.e. hydropower.
You may notice something rather fundamental about these three parts of the energy industry: they are all carbon-neutral or low-carbon energy production systems, and thus are important tools in reducing global warming.
Hydropower is among the oldest approaches to renewable energy, and is far older than its relatively recent adaptation to produce electricity. Preindustrial civilizations have used the power of running water to pump water uphill, to irrigate crops, and to turn machinery. In modern times, giant hydroprojects like the Hoover Dam produce thousands of megawatts of electrical power, enough to serve millions of households, at a relatively reasonable environmental cost. Unfortunately, while the Earth has plenty of water and plenty of gravity, the requirements of hydropower for particular configurations of these resources means that the generating capacity of the natural world is more or less known, and fixed – and the “good spots” are already taken. Hydropower produces more than 1,000 Gigawatts (that’s a thousand megawatts) – about a sixth of the world’s total generating capability. Because hydropower generally requires building large dams that hold enormous quantities of water – usually conveniently located just upstream of enormous population centers – the safety monitoring and maintenance of the dam system is of the utmost priority. ROVs, of course, bring the costs of maintenance and inspection down drastically, further increasing the economic sensibility of hydropower as one of the major components of the global energy economy.
In the eyes of many, nuclear power could not be more diametrically opposed to hydropower. But in fact, depending on your point of view, a number of fundamental similarities are clear. First, although neither hydropower or nuclear power are free of environmental costs, those costs tend to be fixed cost that arise from having the industry exist at all, not costs that double every time the installed generating base doubles. Second, both nuclear and hydropower are baseline generation systems, meaning that they are always available. Third, both forms of generation tend to have catastrophic, but extremely rare, failure cases. If Hoover Dam bursts, an entire downstream city will die. If a Soviet-era nuclear plant goes critical, half of Eastern Europe could be irradiated. This combination of low expenses, high reliability, and rare disaster cases encourage us to think of these forms of power as being *perfectly* reliable, when in fact they are anything but. How to push those systems towards increased stability? Again, with more frequent and more capable monitoring.
If hydropower is the revered ancestor, still trusted but unable to keep up with the demands of his hungry children, and nuclear power is the disliked but economically essential rich cousin whose fortune keeps the family from starvation, then surely offshore windpower is the angsty, emotionally involved younger sibling – a source of infinite potential and hope for the future that is, unfortunately, wrapped in often problematic presentation right now. Windpower has an enormously high undeveloped potential for power generation, at an environmental cost that is minimal if not negligible. (Just the surface layers of the atmosphere could generate 20 times the current TOTAL human energy usage.) Unfortunately, as with hydropower, the easy spots – that is, the places where a huge turbine farm isn’t out of place - are being used for other projects. And that means that wind power has to move offshore, where the real estate tends to be heavily discounted on account of being a thousand feet beneath the ocean. And although it’s possible for us to build infrastructure in the ocean on this scale, it’s not cheap and it’s not easy – and again enter ROVs, keeping costs down, keeping human divers out of harm’s way, and providing more information for project engineers about safety and performance.
It would be an exaggeration to say that without ROVs, we can’t get to a lower-carbon, warming-mitigated world economy. But it wouldn’t be an exaggeration at all to say that ROVs are making major contribution to the energy economy’s attempt to get us over the carbon-footprint hill and into the low-carbon, high-energy promised land.