On Monday, May 17, 2010, Mote Marine Laboratory scientists working in partnership with Rutgers University launched an underwater robot offshore of Southwest Florida to patrol the Gulf of Mexico for oil. The robot, called an autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV, looks like a yellow torpedo and is equipped with a payload that can detect oil and the chemicals used to disperse it in the water.
Launched from a boat 20 miles west of Venice, 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 also has 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 might appear if it gets carried south by the Loop Current.
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, said Dr. Gary Kirkpatrick, manager of Mote's Phytoplankton Ecology Program who is heading up these glider missions.
"There are really large issues at stake for us here in Florida," Kirkpatrick said. "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."
If the AUVs encounter oil, Mote can alert resource managers so they can act to protect important ecological resources and shorelines, Kirkpatrick said. This is believed to be the first time that an AUV has been equipped a payload that can detect oil and sent on a patrol mission.
In addition to supporting the glider missions, the funding from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice will help Mote researchers:
• Take samples of water, sediments, bottom dwelling organisms, and sea grass
• Sample mollusks (primarily clams and oysters)
• Sample the phytoplankton community
• Create a detailed oil response plan that covers a number of different scenarios so that our area will be well-positioned to receive federal or British Petroleum funds.
"We can't thank the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice enough for this lead gift," said Dr. Kumar Mahadevan, president of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. "The impact from this spill is going to be tremendous and as the response progresses, the need for funding to understand the impact is going to be great. This grant will help cover the costs associated with doing some initial planning and fact-finding but the scope of work to determine the effects of the spill on our region's environment is quite enormous."
Quick Facts: The AUVs and their Payloads
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: In simplest terms, 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. In simplest terms, the fluorometer has an LED (light-emitting diode) 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 Looking 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.