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Sarasota Tuesday, May 18, 2010 10 years ago

Underwater robots sent to search for oil

by: Loren Mayo Black Tie Editor

Launched from a boat 20 miles west of Venice, a robot called an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle will patrol the Gulf of Mexico for oil.

The AUV, launched by Mote Marine Laboratory scientists working in partnership with Rutgers University, is equipped with a payload that can detect oil and the chemicals used to disperse it in the water. The AUV will travel another 80 to 100 miles west-southwest, patrolling the continental shelf perpendicular to the coastline.

Thanks to a grant from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, Mote now has the funding to launch another two gliders off Florida later this week. The first, nicknamed “Nemo” and owned by Mote, will look for oil about 15 miles offshore between Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. The second — nicknamed “Waldo” and owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — is scheduled to be deployed to the Florida Keys, where it will search for oil in the straits of Florida, the location oil may appear if it gets carried south by the loop current.

Dr. Gary Kirkpatrick, manager of Mote’s Phytoplankton Ecology Program, who is heading up the glider missions, says that, short of sending researchers out in boats to physically take water samples, this is the only way to tell what’s happening under the water’s surface.

“There are really large issues at stake for us here in Florida," Kirkpatrick said in a prepared statement. "It's not really logistically possible to have humans in boats covering these wide areas, constantly looking for signs of the oil spill coming toward our shores. But we have these great robots that can do this 24 hours a day for three weeks in a row, so it's important we use these tools."

Should the AUVs encounter oil, Mote will alert resource managers so they may act to protect important ecological resources and shorelines. This mission is believed to be the first time that an AUV has been sent on a patrol mission and equipped with a payload that can detect oil.

To make a donation to Mote’s Oil Spill Emergency Fund online, visit

Contact Loren Mayo at [email protected].

Name: Slocum Glider, after Joshua Slocum, the first man to single-handedly sail around the world.

Conceived by: Douglas C. Webb and supported by Henry Strommel and others

Produced by: Teledyne Webb Research

What they do: Travel autonomously throughout the water column for 15 to 30 days at a time gathering data that is then beamed to a satellite network and then sent on to a destination site on earth.

How they travel: The Slocum Glider uses buoyancy to move throughout the water column in a vertical zigzag pattern, taking in water to move down through the water column and expelling water to return to the surface to send data.

Size: About 6 feet long and 8 inches in diameter

Weight: About 110 pounds

About the Glider's payload: The gliders are designed so that they can carry a variety of scientific instruments, or payloads. Mote created a special payload called a BreveBuster that can detect Florida's red tide in the water. Another type of payload — the one being used to detect oil — is a called a fluorometer. A fluorometer measures the light emitted — or fluorescence — of the water as the AUV travels in the water column. The fluorometer has an LED that sends out ultraviolet light. If the water contains certain chemical components of oil, these chemicals will absorb the light and then re-emit it as fluorescence. A detector will see this light emission and report its presence.

What the fluorometer is fooking for: The fluorometer, which is about the size of a hockey puck, is looking for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH's, and the dispersants used to break the oil down. PAHs are the chemical components of oil that are extremely toxic or carcinogenic, affecting reproduction, immune function and the health of organisms that do not die from acute exposure.

* Information courtesy of Mote Marine Laboratory

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