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The pilots behind the robot navy

The machines that are fighting the Gulf of Mexico oil leak have been compared to platoons of Supermen: They work 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the sea, amid pressures that would crush a human. They're built to capture 3-D video of the scene around the gushing well and send it up topside. They can detect objects hundreds of feet away using sonar. They can turn bolts, saw off broken pipe, hook up hoses and carry around equipment weighing hundreds of pounds.

But they're just machines.

Those dozens of machines would be useless without the hundreds of humans controlling their every move from a mile away. And if you want to stay on their good side, you'll call those machines "remotely operated vehicles," or ROVs - not underwater robots.

"To me, as an ROV person, the term 'underwater robot' does conjure up a certain image," said James McLauchlan, a Briton living in Portugal who has 25 years of experience in the offshore subsea construction industry under his belt. "I tend to think of something with a head, two legs and two arms ... something that's down there trying to make its own decisions, trying to make the best of a difficult job."

The way McLauchlan sees it, the ROV is just a tool - a multimillion-dollar, high-tech tool, to be sure, but nevertheless a tool that's being manipulated by flesh-and-blood professionals, via a local control center on the vessel or rig above, to help save the world from an environmental disaster.

McLauchlan isn't involved in the BP subsea operation, but he keeps close tabs on it in his role as the head of ROV World, a website that serves as an online watering hole for the ROV community. His company also supplies subsea technology and performs underwater inspections for offshore operations. A veteran of the British Army's Royal Engineers, McLauchlan spent 10 years as a commercial bell diver for the oil and gas industry, and for most of the past 15 years he's been a shift operation supervisor for offshore ROV construction projects.

Nowadays, much of the chatter on ROV World focuses on what the workers behind the machines are doing in the Gulf. ROV pilots have been trading news and rumors, pictures and points of view since just after the April 20 oil-rig explosion that sparked the disaster in the Gulf.

As you'd expect, most of the postings see the situation through the eyes of the men behind the joysticks. For example, BP interrupted the collection of thousands of barrels of oil last week because of problems with a line leading up from the leaking well's containment cap. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government's point man on the oil-spill response, said the problem arose because an ROV bumped into the cap - but not all of ROV World's patrons were buying that explanation.

"Let me guess - Thad Allen again?" one posting read. "Meanwhile, back in the real world, Enterprise had gas alarms and moved off 400 meters, resulting in cap moving 40 meters off the BOP [blowout preventer]."

During our conversation, McLauchlan stressed that the pilots are careful to execute only the commands they are given, under the watchful eyes of supervisors and clients.

"The fact that the well is not good, and that BP has lost control of it, that's self-evident," McLauchlan told me. "That doesn't really detract from subsea operations. ... Whether there's a well that is out of control, or whether a well is in normal operation, we carry out operations as suggested by the client. We provide the eyes and the ears for the client, but at the end of the day, it's the client who decides what action should be taken."

McLauchlan estimated that more than 97 percent of the world's ROV pilot techs are male. For the Gulf of Mexico operation, ROV crews are housed for weeks at a time aboard the dozens of vessels and rigs surrounding the leaking well. Each crew works a 12-hour shift, finishing up with "toolbox time" to brief the crew taking over for the next 12-hour shift. In an on-the-scene report from one of the drillships, The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach notes that workers can take advantage of workout rooms, foosball tables, video games, TV and Internet during their off hours. But drinking and "horseplay" are not allowed.

In an e-mail exchange, McLauchlan discussed the routine of an ROV pilot, with the understanding that he's an ocean away from the action. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:

Cosmic Log: I'm just trying to visualize how the operation works. With the BP operation, there appears to be "the Hive," which is the ROV Operations Center, part of the Houston Crisis Center. But that looks to be folks sitting around computer terminals. I assume these are the people who are orchestrating the campaign on the big-picture scale, but the actual steering is done on the various ships that are at the site.

James McLauchlan: You would be correct in assuming that the Ops Center is BP's nerve center for this operation. Normally this is not the case as, when all is well, the client representative on ships (or, in the case of drilling rigs, the company man) is the first point of client liaison for normal operations. Most normal operational issues are dealt with onboard, or changes are implemented during normal working hours onshore unless there is an emergency. Then the emergency plan can be put into action.

There is always a 24/7 emergency response plan in place onboard, and various numbers on the beach that I (I say 'I' as an offshore project manager during such projects) can call if I feel the need. If we have an emergency situation that is beyond our control we are not simply left alone to get on with it. We can call on help as soon as we need. In any case, any incident or near miss needs to be reported and acted upon ASAP. There are always procedures in place for this.

Operations-wise, on the BP-chartered vessels right now there will be a couple of BP representatives (at minimum) on the vessels to give 24-hour coverage. They will be having their strings pulled by BP people further up the food chain in the Ops Center on the beach for sure.

ROV Operations Center

BP

A room known as "the Hive" houses the ROV Operations Center inside BP's Houston Crisis Center.

Q: Is there generally a live two-way link between the onshore center and the offshore pilot operation?

A: Mostly only in cases such as this type of major disaster, you might get a live video link. It is common for many normal high-end operations these days to have a live 24/7 Ku-band connection to the beach for all sorts of communication. Phones, Internet, fax, etc., but that's just for routine day-to-day stuff, not live video streaming, as it really sucks up the available bandwidth. The vessel or rig comms can be and are utilized for emergency 24/7 communications if required.

Q: Do the pilots live aboard ship?

A: ROV pilots and all associated project staff live on the ship. The same applies to drill rigs.

Q: Are they cycled off and on for shore time?

A: Often a trip could be 28 days, but it can be as short as two weeks (in Norway and U.K., for example) or as long as six weeks (Asia, Africa and other areas). It varies depending on which part of the world we are operating in, how long the job might be, etc. Many drill rigs have regular crew-change rotation of two weeks on, two weeks off ... or four weeks on, four weeks off.

Q: You mentioned that there were 12-hour shifts, with a handover and "toolbox talk" at the transition between each shift. Do pilots stare into display monitors and move joysticks around during all that time, or is there usually some down time where the ROV is "parked" because of the demands of simultaneuos operations?

A: Generally a work-class ROV system, such as the ones being used in the BP Gulf of Mexico operation and globally, has a three-man crew for each 12-hour shift. That's one ROV supervisor and two pilot techs.

ROV Operations Center

Courtesy of James McLauchlan

James McLauchlan keeps close tabs on the oil-spill disaster on the ROV World online forum.

One person flies, one is co-pilot, the other is around to help out. A three-man team does allow for people to get a break, have a coffee, meals, etc. Each person on the three-man team should be able to rotate out through all positions. The supervisor runs the shift and liaises with the operations supervisor or client depending on how big the vessel or job might be.

Often the ROV can be put on the bottom, just observing. Watching the oil leak is a prime example. Then you really need only one guy in the pilot's seat and one guy in the shack to help if required. That leaves a guy to float around and do other stuff. In general, a 12-hour shift can be hard on occasions, but perfectly manageable for normal operations ... and sometimes deathly quiet. When the weather is bad there may be no operations for days, which is when we catch up on preventive and ongoing maintenance tasks.

Sometimes another vessel may need to come in and perform non-ROV-related tasks. Then the ROV boat might pull off for a period.

Q: How do the ROV pilots on different ships involved in the operation avoid having their machines bump into each other, or getting their lines (for power and comm) tangled up? During simultaneous operations, is there an open channel or a traffic controller that orchestrates the different parts of the operation?

A: All ROV's have sonar. We can 'see' objects around us, and after a while you build up a mental map of the seabed as you would if you walked in the same park day in, day out. Plus we have multiple cameras and lights. Most ROV's are lit up like a Christmas tree underwater so it's hard to miss seeing one. For positioning we know where the ROVs are by using USBL underwater positioning systems that show the location of an ROV on a screen in relation to the vessel it is operating from. With more complex multivessel operations, all this data and video streams can be fed between vessels and fed to other ROV systems.

If we have two or more work class systems working together we set up live 24/7 live comms between all ROV control systems. We have hard wire and radio comms plus phones, so should any one system fail we have fallbacks. With regards to tethers ... at these depths, ROV use Tether Management Systems so we rarely have issues with ROV tethers becoming entangled. It happens, but in 99 percent of the instances I have ever known we were able to untangle them without external assistance.

Q: How does this operation rate compared with the operations in your experience? I've got to think that this is the most complex operation ever conducted in the offshore world, but I have to say I don't have any experience with that.

A: This operation is not one of the most complex. We do far more complicated construction tasks than this all over the world. This one may look complex, but that might be because the public has no real idea what we do routinely on construction projects.

Q: Do you find there's a particular type of person who's best-suited for this kind of work (for example, a video gamer, or former military)?

A: Experienced time-served mechanics with hydraulics experience, and electrical/electronic personnel are the best types. Ex-military with the same experience are good candidates too. Computer gamers probably couldn't even wire up an electrical plug or use a spanner (wrench), so would be of no use to us.

More on the disaster in the Gulf:


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