US & Canada

What does it take to control a robot claw?

ROV claw
Image caption The ROVs go where humans cannot

The response to the BP oil spill has thrown a spotlight on the work of the pilots who painstakingly steer the underwater remote-operated vehicles. So how hard is it to drive an ROV?

As anyone who has ever operated a fairground claw machine can attest, using robot arms instead of your own can make the simplest task difficult.

But imagine doing it more than a mile under the surface of the sea, when the task is stopping the worst environmental disaster ever to afflict the US.

One ROV worker has described it as like trying to "ring a doorbell with a broomstick at the end of a vehicle".

The live video feeds on BP's website have allowed the general public to follow every twist and turn of an extraordinary battle.

The Deepwater Horizon rig explosion on 20 April killed 11 people and unleashed a torrent of oil into the Gulf.

Since then there has been a desperate battle to cap the well and stop the flow of oil.

The damaged BP well was thousands of feet beyond the level human divers can reach.

Every time something needs to be unscrewed or connected, an ROV has to do the job.

In media shorthand, they are "robots", but they are not in the truest sense of the word. Instead, human hands on the surface painstakingly guide the machines.

The live camera feeds from the ROVs have shown mechanical claws silently reaching for switches, levers and valves.

Before the BP spill, a complex deepwater oil drilling operation might have had three ROVs working simultaneously, says Ed Galloway, senior project manager at Oceaneering, the firm which handles BP's robots.

During the spill response there have on occasion been 14 ROVs in the water.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionFootage from BP remote-operated vehicles, starting with a diamond wire saw cutting the riser pipe

And all of this has been done without any planning.

"This is something that you plan for a year ahead if you were going to do this type of operations. [Now] people were pulled from the field unprepared," says Mr Galloway.

The custom-built ROVs were already around, but much of the equipment attached to them has been built "on the fly", he explains.

And the spill has cast a spotlight on the work of the ROV pilots, a job that Mr Galloway - who spent many years doing it - says needs "patience" in droves.

"When you are looking at an ROV flying, the pilot has a lot going on, screens and monitors, five or six people behind him telling him what to do.

"It is very exciting when you are operating the ROV when you are on site. [But] it can be kind of frustrating watching."

Growing demand

ROV work might not seem thrilling to the uninitiated observer.

"You are going down the same pipeline you have been going down at one mile an hour for days and days," says Bob Christ, president of SeaTrepid. "It isn't glamorous."

Image caption The work presents a series of technical puzzles but is not glamorous

On the other hand, it is very well paid. "I've got guys three years out of college earning $125,000."

Many ROV pilots come from a particular background, Mr Christ says.

"Many are ex-divers or aviation people simply because the parallels are very acute. You have a three-dimensional space you are operating in."

Others have expertise in hydraulics or electronics.

Mr Christ himself flew small charter planes for a living before becoming interested in ROVs while taking part in the search for the U166, a German World War II U-boat sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.

That led to him switching to work as an ROV pilot, eventually co-writing a training manual.

"There is going to be more and more demand for robots to do the work," says Mr Christ. "ROV technology is getting better and better."

It isn't just about oil and gas - the devices are also regularly used in scientific work. But the growing area of deepwater and ultra-deepwater drilling has led to more ROV use.

As fields on land and in shallow water have been exploited, exploration has moved deeper and deeper.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, deepwater and ultra-deepwater drilling, just in the Gulf of Mexico, provides 23.5% of US oil production.

Image caption The number of ROVs used by BP is unprecedented

While there is a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the US at the moment, development continues apace around the rest of the world. And if drilling resumes in the Gulf of Mexico, oil companies are going to be forming contingency plans which involve more ROVs.

But there are obstacles.

"The hard part isn't about the technology," says Mr Christ. "The problem is getting trained operators. It takes years to break in most people."

One of the consequences of the spill is ROV footage appearing on rolling news stations on both sides of the Atlantic.

"You might see an influx of people like what happened when Top Gun came out and people wanted to join the navy and be a pilot," says Mr Galloway.

Jill Zande, associate director of the Marine Advance Technology Education centre, is responsible for getting young people excited about ROV technology, using a competition where they devise solutions to undersea problems.

"Several of the students who have participated have gone on to work as ROV pilots and technicians."

But as well as the technical background, long training and patience needed, the pilots have a lifestyle - like many others in offshore drilling - which is not for everyone.

"They have a difficult and hard life," notes Mr Christ.

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