The Undersea Robot Pilots Working in the BP Oil Disaster

The Gulf oil disaster is both a testament of humans' inability to control nature and BP's recklessness and incompetence. Now, it's time for technology to fix this mess. One of the essential tools to stop the disaster: Underwater robots.

BP says they have contracted four different companies that specialize in underwater robots. Their machines have set up the cameras that have been transmitting video feeds back to the surface. More importantly, the robots also cut the pipe, and placed both the first, failed containment dome and the second one.

They can range in size from that of a small car to that of a big truck, and navigate primarily by sonar. They remain connected to the surface by a copper or fiber optic cable, where they're controlled by pilots via joystick. Sometimes the ocean sabotages the operation, tangling the connecting tether, and even cutting the multi-million dollar beasts loose.

The piloting is so difficult, in fact, that it takes two people just to control one robot. They sit in a dark room—not as dark as the water around the robot—with several monitors around them. One pilot is in charge of navigating the vehicle, while another operates its arms, which are designed to move like those of a human. The experience isn't easy, because these pilots know that in addition to the bad visibility, the treacherous current, and the danger of losing their metallic avatars, the eyes of the world are on them. They are our last line of defense against the oilpocalypse. [NPR]

Image credit AP