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Unmanned Seaglider undersea vehicles could cut through debates about underwater plumes and the quantity of oil spilled in Gulf of Mexico

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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At least two fundamental questions remain about the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: how much oil has spilled and where exactly is it located? BP’s use of chemical dispersants to address the crisis has complicated the answers to these questions by likely redistributing oil from the surface to locations deeper into the water column—something BP’s chief executive Tony Hayward disputes.  

Now, the Seaglider, an unmanned underwater vehicle manufactured by iRobot Corp. of Massachusetts, could help clear up the debate. Both the University of Mississippi and U.S. Navy have recently deployed these ocean-going gliders to scan the spill area, using optical sensors to gather hard data.

Scientific American sat down this week with Joseph Dyer, president of the government and industrial robot division at iRobot, to discuss how the Seaglider works and how it might be used to answer important, basic questions about the Gulf oil spill.*



Originally an invention of researchers at the University of Washington, the Seaglider was brought to market by iRobot, perhaps best known for the Roomba automatic vacuum cleaner.

*Note (6/9/10): This sentence was edited after publication for clarification.

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  1. 1. jimmywat 10:17 pm 06/4/2010

    Of course Hayward is correct. He’s been right every time so far. Why should we doubt him?

    Nalco’s dispersants were used to hide the evidence, not remove the oil; to reduce the fines BP has to pay for the total amount of oil spilled! Of course he doesn’t want to send machines to fine more evidence.

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  2. 2. jimmywat 10:32 pm 06/4/2010

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.

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  3. 3. mikecimerian 2:16 am 06/5/2010

    I agree, this isn’t a stray leak. Dispersants are not meant to deal with this scale. What is required is containment and mega-machines. Hourray for robotics but they’re toy sized and PR fronts for research funds. Barges with fluid separation units and tankers. This I would take more seriously.

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  4. 4. AIT 2:44 am 06/5/2010

    The U.S. NEEDS to prepare for an extended legal battle with B.P. NOW.
    One important legal battle is tracking and scientifically proving that these oil plumes are coming from the well.
    An idea is to inject tracking dies at the source or seeing if the dispersants leave a tell tale mark in the underwater oil plumes. THE POINT IS THE U.S. needs to prepare and gather evidence against B.P. because B.P. is already preparing for their defense.

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  5. 5. mikecimerian 3:55 am 06/5/2010

    "The U.S. NEEDS to prepare for an extended legal battle with B.P. NOW"

    I agree and there is a lot of blame to go around. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with the real muck and the blame game will add more murk to it all.

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  6. 6. ironjustice 8:37 am 06/5/2010

    You may THINK that you are ABLE to ‘change the law’ to CHANGE the 78 mllion dollar ‘cap’ of British Petroleum’s cost of cleanup but CONTRARY to what YOU would LIKE .. the courts are going to find out the CONTRACT stands and the US is going to EAT the cost of cleanup. THAT is how law works and just because America thinks they ARE ‘above the law’ DOESN’T necessarily make it so. IF America didn’t like the contract they should NEVER have agreed to it. Imho ..

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  7. 7. AIT 5:37 pm 06/5/2010

    Mr. Justice…BP has lost $25 Billion in market value and has paid out over $280 million as of 5/28. I think as an American, unless you are a Brit ( I jest), should feel more optimistic about America’s chances for recouping the costs. Hopefully, this tragedy will make us as a world establish the true costs of using fossil fuels.
    Again, America needs to prepare for an extended legal battle with BP. Also, America needs to scientifically establish the source of the underwater plumes.

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  8. 8. Macrocompassion 10:46 am 06/15/2010

    It is easy to calculate the amount of oil that has been lost and I am surprized that nobody has presented any numbers from analysis. Suppose the flow has been averaging 100,000 barrels per day. This rate is 10^5 /(24 x 60 x 60) = 1.157 barrels per second.

    A barrel is 6.25 cubic feet and the exit pipe that is shown in the video clips is 22 inches in diameter.

    Velocity of flow is 1.157 x 6.25 / ((pi/4) x (22/12)^2) = 2.74 ft./sec.

    The videos suggest a speed of at least 15 ft./sec. so either the rate of flow is more than 5 times my initial assumption or the pipe is less than half the diameter that I believed to be true.

    Using the first assumption, after 40 days of flow the quantity of oil might be about 4 million barrels or 25 million cubic feet.

    If this is spread over a surface area of a ten thousand miles, (that is a square of 100 miles side length) its thickness is only

    25 x 10^6 / (5,280 x 100)^2 = 8.975 x 10^-5 feet or one thousandths of an inch!

    Anybody got any better estimates?

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