SUMMERLAND KEY, FL (July 19, 2010) – An underwater robot that can detect the first signs of undersea oil plumes was launched off the Florida Keys today in an effort to better track the movement of oil plumes and to help protect the Florida Keys against possible impacts from the Gulf oil disaster. The Mote Marine Laboratory robot is nicknamed Waldo and its mission to enhance current oil tracking research was commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Oceana.
"Like a storm-tracking plane that flies into a hurricane, this robot will tell us what aerial reconnaissance and satellite imagery cannot. Waldo can tell us where underwater oil plumes may exist,” said Sarah Chasis, director of NRDC’s ocean initiative. “The Florida Keys is a place defined by its ocean environment and we need to sound the alarm to help protect these resources from oil impacts as soon as we know oil is there. By answering ‘where’s Waldo?’ we can help answer ‘where’s the oil?’ and activate emergency response plans for this nearly invisible threat.”
The robot is a six-and-a-half-foot-long autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) resembling a yellow torpedo. It is equipped with sensors that can detect oil and the chemicals used to disperse it in the water. The robot will patrol the waters north and northwest of the Florida Keys on the outer continental shelf nonstop for about three weeks – the length of its battery life.
It will gather data every two seconds and transmit the information to researchers via satellite every three hours, giving near real-time information about what's happening deeper in the water column where satellite imagery cannot see. If Waldo encounters oil, researchers will conduct water sampling tests to confirm the presence of oil and, if oil is found, provide local government with this information so that emergency resources and response plans can be activated to help to protect the area’s important ecological resources.
“Sadly, the Keys are not yet off the hook when it comes to oil impacts from this drilling disaster. Since they are home to some of our nation’s most treasured reefs as well as commercial and game fishes, we must be alert to what’s going on below the surface,” said Jackie Savitz, senior scientist with Oceana. “Waldo will be on the lookout and can provide an early warning if the Keys are in danger,” she added.
Waldo will be deployed just north of Sugarloaf Key and travel northwest to a point approximately 35 miles north of Mullet Key. From there the AUV will travel north about 40 miles and then turn to head southwest 65 miles to a point 20 miles north of the Dry Tortugas. It will then turn and backtrack along the course it just covered. It will repeat this path until the battery needs to be replaced.
The device 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.
It is designed to carry a variety of scientific instruments, or payloads, including a fluorometer, which detects the oil.
A fluorometer measures the light emitted – or fluorescence – of the water as the AUV travels in the water column. The fluorometer has an LED (light-emitting diode) that sends out ultraviolet light, and if water contains certain chemical components of oil, these chemicals will absorb the light and re-emit it as fluorescence. A detector will see this light emission and report its presence.
Waldo is one of a team of robots from Mote, Rutgers University, the University of South Florida and the University of Delaware that are patrolling the waters off Florida’s west coast for oil. The first of these oil detecting robots was launched by Mote on May 17, 2010. So far, no oil or chemical dispersants have been found during any AUV patrols on the west Florida continental shelf, but the AUVs are providing valuable information that is helping ocean modelers create better predictions for where the oil might move.
“We are gathering a lot of information about how the currents are flowing in and around the areas where oil would be expected to come,” Kirkpatrick said. “Computer modelers around the country have been using this information to refine their predictions about where the oil will go. With computer models, you still need actual data to compare your models to. Without the data, the models are less reliable.”
Thus far, these underwater robots have uncovered better data over much of the west Florida shelf about:
- Water currents
- Water temperatures
- Particle distribution
These factors are all important in determining where and how any underwater oil plumes would move.
The Florida Keys is a significant ecological treasure consisting of the only complete tropical marine ecosystem in the continental United States, the third longest barrier coral reef in the world and more than 6,000 species of plants, fish and invertebrates. These environmental resources support tourism and fishing industries that generate more than a billion dollars annually for the islands.
To further address possible impacts of oil on the Keys’ wildlife, NRDC and Oceana will host a public conference in August bringing together leading scientists on the issue. NRDC and Oceana will also provide frequent updates of Waldo’s findings via social media tools including Twitter and Facebook.