Oil and gas produced in deepwater environments helps drive the world’s economies and fuel transportation, power generation and chemicals production. However, it is rare for the public to see the many technologies used to tap these resources deep below the ocean’s surface.
The search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is providing an exception to the rule. Currently, an autonomous underwater vehicle (“AUV”) is leading the search deep in the Indian Ocean for the remains of the airliner. The Bluefin-21 AUV was first developed by a team of MIT engineers; team members later founded Bluefin Robotics, based in Quincy, Massachusetts.
AUVs have no umbilical connecting them to a hoist vessel, they carry both onboard power and the computer capability to travel a pre-set path through the water, using internal and/or external positioning sources and sensors. AUVs are a highly effective sensor platform in deep waters, and they are often used in deepwater oil and gas exploration and production.
AUVs can effectively survey areas where Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) cannot, as ROVs are limited by the length of their umbilicals in both distance and ultimately the physical drag imposed by the umbilical on the ROV itself. The Bluefin-21 will move back and forth across the ocean floor, scanning the seabed and creating a detailed map of the seafloor. If and when items are located, AUVs and ROVs will facilitate recovery – and perhaps play a small role in providing closure to passengers’ friends and families.
Sadly this is not the first use of AUVs in this role. In the case of the loss of the Air France Flight 447 which crashed on June 1, 2009 three Hydroid REMUS 6000 AUVs aided in the search for and discovery of wreckage nearly two and a half miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil.
The energy sector is one of the largest users of underwater vehicles and demanding offshore operators and service companies helped further development of many of their capabilities. These tools will play a key role in searching for clues as to what happened to Flight 370.
R. Michael Haney, Douglas-Westwood Houston
+1 713 385 2588 or [email protected]