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.