"I came to the [Woods Hole] Oceanic [Institution] as a mess attendant and the first cruise I ever made was finding the RMS Titanic," Collasius says. "I was at the right place at the right time. It knocked my socks off. I vowed that I would go do that one day."
Collasius made good on his word. Today he pilots an underwater remote-operated vehicle, or ROV, for the Oceanic, a nonprofit marine research group based in Massachusetts.
His work sounds a little like science fiction: Men on ships flicking joysticks that control robots the size of trucks as they rove miles beneath the sea in near-freezing depths no man could hope to reach, sophisticated tools and cameras whirring and snapping at the ends of long hydraulic arms.
But ever since the Gulf of Mexico Oil spill erupted in April, robots much like these have played a vital role in each successive effort BP has made to staunch the spill pouring forth from its sunken Deepwater Horizon rig. It was powerful ROVs equipped with a diamond tipped saw and, eventually, a pair of enormous shears, which cut a crushed riser pipe this week as step one in the latest attempt to cap the leak.
BP called in the "disaster-bots" to try and activate the malfunctioning blowout preventer shortly after the leak sprung. Then they were deployed to lower a concrete-and-steel containment dome over the gusher. Then to set riser-insertion tubes between the well and the broken end of the sunken riser and funnel crude to a waiting ship on the ocean's surface.
At the controls were pilots like Collasius, who "fly" the ROVs from specially equipped command centers aboard ships, joy sticks in hand and large banks of screens in front of them offering a view of the challenges they confront in the waters below.
"No Hardware Store to Go To"
Most ROVs employ an umbilical cable feeding power and telemetry from a mother ship to the underwater robot. A growing number of ROVs, though, are "autonomous" and operate with no tether.
Experts say ROVs are typically used for three types of missions: commercial (as in the oil industry), oceanographic (science research and exploration), and military (mine reconnaissance and recovery).
The vast majority are operated by companies that provide services for oil corporations operating offshore fields, and telecommunications companies that string cable along ocean basin floors.
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Collasius pilots an ROV called Jason, which has a different function than the robots working at the site of the oil spill. His machine serves as a sampling platform for geologists, chemists, and biologists investigating marine life.
For their part, oil companies use ROVs to install and inspect equipment like pipelines, valves and risers. They also use them for intervention -- when, for example, a piece of hardware breaks and needs to be repaired in place or unbolted and brought back to the surface. They also use ROVs to remove equipment at the end of its service life.
Most often, the people who operate ROVs were engineers before they became pilots.
"When you're at sea with these vehicles, there's no hardware store to go to," says Louis Whitcomb, a professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. "It's a little bit different than commercial aircraft where the pilot doesn't service the engine. Oftentimes these [ROV] pilots are very skilled and knowledgeable. Some have a background in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or they are ex-submariners divers. They usually bring one of those skill sets to the table and then they become expert pilots through this experience."
The Deeper the Well, the More Important the Bots
ROVs have taken on increasing importance in the oil industry in recent years, says Whitcomb, who researches new methods of navigation and control for underwater vehicles. Until relatively recently, most offshore oil fields were relatively shallow. But many of the newer fields discovered at temperate latitudes -- in the United States, Brazil and elsewhere -- are located deep beneath the sea.
"Back in the day when all oil fields were shallow, a lot of that inspection and intervention could be done by human divers," Whitcomb says. But it takes "exotic technology" for a human to dive down even 100 meters.
That's because the pressure underwater increases as depths grow. The pressure at the bottom of the Deepwater Horizon site, Whitcomb notes, "is 150 times what we experience here sitting in the office."
"The reason that we use ROVs is because the human body cannot survive at the depths that, for example, this well head is on the sea floor," says Whitcomb. "The only two options are submarines and ROV. And there are relatively few submarines that can dive down at the depth of this leak."
Nevertheless, ROVs can face enormous challenges at great depths, and, as we've been reminded, are not guaranteed to get the job done for BP.
"All of these operations are complex, involve risks and uncertainties, and have to be carried out by remotely operated vehicles at 5,000 feet under water," BP said in a statement. "Systems such as the LMRP containment cap never before have been deployed at these depths and conditions. The containment system's efficiency, continued operation, and ability to contain the oil and gas cannot be assured."
"A Whole Different Beast"
Among potential pitfalls for the ROVs themselves are seawater intrusion, which can do significant damage to the robots, and the simple fact that these vehicles' arms, known as manipulators, are less agile than human hands.
Still, as oil production further expands into deepwater environments hostile to humans, Whitcomb says, the use of ROVs will only continue to grow, as will the need for skilled pilots.
"I've been working with ROVs my entire career, and I'm not a particularly good pilot," Whitcomb says. "Skilled pilots who have hundreds and thousands of hours of experience could do things with the vehicles that I could never hope to."
Collasius says that while his ROV can work in depths up to 6,500 meters -- much deeper than the working-class variety being used by BP -- it can't compete with BP's models by other measures.
"The amount of power that they have is enormous compared to us -- the size and the horse power," he says. "They can hook up a big chain saw and cut the pipe. They're down there trying to fix things. It's a whole different beast."
Typically, Collasius says, his missions last five or six days, with repeated 12 to 16 hour dives. In addition to the pilot, the robot is operated by two other people: a navigator and an engineer who flies a secondary vehicle 30 meters above the ROV, allowing it to be decoupled from the motion of the ship.
One side of the pod in which they work is dedicated to driving the vehicle; the other side is reserved for scientists to do their work.
"I am sitting in a very comfortable chair in front of a bank of video monitors and in my lap I have a box with two joy sticks on it," Collasius says. One of the sticks controls the ROV's up-and-down motion, the other moves it from side to side. His ROV can travel at speeds up to one knot.
Suggestions for dealing with the spill have ranged from stockings full of dog hair to absorbent peat moss to enormous supertankers with vacuum hoses. More recently, film director James Cameron, who became expert in underwater filming and remote vehicle technologies while filming "Titanic" and "The Abyss," offered up his expertise.
BP has reportedly turned Cameron down. Instead, the oil giant is now hoping a band of much less celebrated ROV pilots can deliver it a Hollywood ending.