Exploring Earth’s Last Frontier with ROVs
Approximately 70% of the world is covered by water. Tremendous pressures limit where we can go in this watery world. Yet remote operated vehicles are
making its exploration possible.
By Earl Hunsinger
When you think of a robot, what comes to mind? While the kind of self aware robots portrayed in science fiction movies seem to be a long way off, the
fact is that robots have actually been used for years in a variety of scientific and industrial fields. For example, automatic welding robots are
commonly used in auto manufacturing and other applications. Perhaps more interesting examples can be found among the robots used to explore and
develop earth’s last frontier.
The deep ocean has often been compared to outer space, and with good reason. In many ways, it is just as inaccessible, and dangerous, to humans. Yet
some 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water. While man has very thoroughly explored the 30% covered by land, in many ways the oceans remain
a mystery. When you consider that new plants and animals are still discovered every year on dry land, it becomes obvious that the world’s oceans
have much to offer scientifically. Others look at them from a more commercial perspective, hoping to cash in on the natural mineral resources that
Robots have proven themselves to be valuable tools in both types of endeavors. Remote operated vehicles (ROVs) have been used for deep-sea rescue
operations and to recover things from the sea floor since the 1960s, when their development was funded by the United States Navy. Almost immediately
the oil and gas industry saw their potential and began building ROVs of their own to use in the development of offshore oil fields. They became
especially valuable in the 1980s, when many of the deposits discovered were at depths that were impossible for divers to reach.
ROVs use a tether, or umbilical cable, to convey commands from a shipboard operator to the underwater vehicle. This tether will also convey video
signals and sensor data. In high power applications, hydraulic lines may also be added. ROVs come in a multitude of sizes and designs, based on the
specific tasks for which they are designed. A typical ROV is equipped with thrusters that allow it to maneuver in any direction, pivoting around all
three axes of rotation. It may also have a variety of cameras, lights, devices for collecting water samples, and manipulators or cutters. Its sensor
suite may include sonars, magnetometers, and instruments for measuring the light penetration, temperature, and clarity of the water.
ROVs range in size from scientific models weighing only a few pounds to giant industrial machines weighing up to 10,000 pounds.
The tasks of the ROVs used by the oil and gas industry range from the simple inspection of subsea structures, such as pipelines and platforms, to
actual construction tasks, such as connecting pipelines and placing underwater manifolds.
The military uses ROVs for mine clearing and inspection. They are also used in salvage operations for sunken ships and planes. They have even been
used to locate many historic shipwrecks, including the Bismark, RMS Titanic, and USS Yorktown. In addition, ROVs are used extensively in a variety of
scientific fields. Among other things, this has led to the discovery of a number of deep-sea plants and animals, and to the subsequent study of these
in their natural habitats.
Remote operated vehicles have been in use for decades, with good success. Yet, 70% of earth’s surface is covered with water. If that weren’t
enough, the ocean is a three dimensional environment, with the bottom at a tremendous depth in many places. This depth, and the resulting pressure,
makes any exploration a challenge, even with an ROV. Yet this inaccessibility enhances its mystery. Whether you’re a scientist or an industrialist,
it fires the imagination to contemplate what may yet be discovered with the assistance of these underwater robots.
By Buzzle Staff and Agencies
[edit on 4-8-2010 by StealthyKat]