Oil In The Gulf
KEY WEST — Researchers found themselves playing “Where’s Waldo?,” looking for a lost, oil-hunting robot.
Waldo the robot was released by scientists and engineers with Mote Marine Laboratory on May 25 into the Gulf of Mexico off Key West to search for oil. It didn’t find any oil, but it did get a little lost.
Two other robots released by Mote still are swimming in the Gulf, one that was released about 20 miles west of Venice on May 17 and another that was released Wednesday off Key West. Neither of those have found oil, either.
The gliders have sensors to detect oil, oil mixed with dispersants and weathered oil. Scientists tell them where to swim, diving deep and rising again and again, sampling the water. If they detect oil, they’ll document the geographic position, depth and concentration.
Waldo swam in the waters off the Florida Keys for about three and a half days, but then it ran into a strong current, and scientists were having trouble talking to it via satellite.
“It’s been going real well. These are complicated machines and the fact that the radio goes bad is not too surprising,” said Gary Kirkpatrick, manger of Mote’s Phytoplankton Ecology Program and the scientist overseeing Mote’s AUV research.
Waldo the robot looks like a mix between a torpedo and an airplane. It’s a 6-foot-long, yellow device with wings and a tail. The robots are gliding, autonomous underwater vehicles without propellers, moving down in the water by taking on water and becoming heavier and moving upward by pumping that water out.
Because they aren’t propelled forward, they can patrol the water for weeks, but it also means that strong currents can cause problems.
Waldo’s path was a little too close to the Keys, because currents increase in strength as they flow around islands, Kirkpatrick explained.
“We weren’t able to get him to swim his way out of the current, so the current started taking him southwest down toward the Florida Straits,” he said. “So we decided to pull him out of the water. As we were lining up to do that, we starting having quite a lot of problems with the satellite communications.”
Mote and National Park Service staff searched for Waldo by boat Friday and almost gave up, but finally someone spotted its tail sticking out of the water, Kirkpatrick said.
The robot spent the night in Fort Jefferson, the old military fort on Dry Tortugas, and on Saturday, researchers tried to re-release him farther north — but because of communication problems, they had to cut the mission short.
On Wednesday, they released another robot glider off the Keys. But this one will go north of the Keys this time, so it doesn’t get caught in the same currents, Kirkpatrick said.
The robot that went into the water about 20 miles west of Venice on May 17 has reached depths of 300 feet and has about 12 days of battery life left, he said. It went southwest out to the loop current eddy, into the current and traveled rapidly to the south. Now, its direction is to break out of the current and return to shore.
They plan to release another on Thursday west of Venice, and it should follow a similar course, he said.
Mote also plans to deploy a robot named Nemo to look at the phytoplankton community in the Gulf. Phytoplankton are the basis of the food web, and changes could signal widespread disruption for other marine animals including fish and mammals, Kirkpatrick said.