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How Oil Industry Robots Can Help Scientists Explore the Deep Sea

Researchers often can’t afford to send remotely operated vehicles to the far reaches of the ocean. Now they’re collaborating with business to take advantage of discoveries made by ROVs deployed by oil and gas companies.

Written by Paul Tullis Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
An ROV working on a structure at an underwater oil and gas field.Wikipedia

A cusk eel hides under a black coral for hours, emerging for only a minute at a time before returning to its den. A hammerhead shark skims the ocean floor more than 1,000m (3,400ft) beneath the surface – the deepest observation of the species ever recorded. These are just two of the remarkable discoveries made by remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) deployed by the Shell Oil Group’s drillship Deepsea Metro 1 in the western Indian Ocean, off the coast of Tanzania. Images from the ROVs have ended up in peer-reviewed scientific journals in recent years.

Now researchers from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, drawing on the knowledge of ROV operators delivered at a workshop last year in Perth, Australia, have outlined scientific research priorities that can be addressed using industry-owned machines, in a new study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment

“The paper was a chance for us as a team to think about what we’d discovered and what we could be discovering in the future,” said Peter Macreadie, associate professor of environmental science at Deakin University in Australia and lead author of the study. “In the past it’s been ad hoc, but this was about coming together in a more strategic way.”

Oil and gas companies, for instance, fly ROVs up and down the water column as part of their routine environmental compliance requirements, as well as to explore for new resources. That enables them to see things scientists can only dream of, given the cost of deploying ROVs.

Around 2000, deep-sea biologists and other marine scientists at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in the U.K. were seeking a greater understanding of the biodiversity in the surrounding seas and initiated a consortium with industry.

The initial surveys conducted by the group, said NOC research scientist Daniel Jones, “revealed there were a lot of species that hadn’t been described.” Scientists sought to expand their access to industry ROVs, which was a new technology at the time. This led to the formation of the Scientific and Environmental ROV Partnership Using Existing Industrial Technology, or SERPENT.

It’s now run out of the NOC with partners at four Australian universities and Louisiana State University. ROV operators deliver unexpected images of deep-sea life to SERPENT, and scientists visit remote drilling rigs and exploration vessels to conduct experiments.

Industry ROV operators in particular have been enthusiastic about providing scientists with the exceptional photos and video they capture. “Spending time operating these ROVs out in the ocean, it’s a bit of a lonely existence,” Macreadie said. “So to have scientists saying, ‘Whoa! What’s that?’ and ‘This is amazing!’ – I think it changes their sense of purpose in their role.”

The oil and gas industry isn’t in the business of making scientific discoveries, of course, but it has a financial incentive to participate in SERPENT and possible future research missions outlined in Macreadie’s paper.

Many oil and gas structures around the world – 4,000 in the Gulf of Mexico alone, according to Macreadie – are due for decommissioning in the next couple of decades. But ecosystems rich with marine life have grown up around the oil rigs and some conservationists are wondering whether it might be better at this point to leave them in place. That would save oil companies billions of dollars in removal and remediation costs. (Some have proposed that a portion of the industry’s savings be devoted to programs to enhance the marine environment.)

The workshop Macreadie’s paper grew out of began as a discussion between scientists and rig operators about this “rigs-to-reefs” concept. “But the meeting got a little bit hijacked,” he said, by the idea of outlining opportunities for scientific collaboration with industry. Researchers told the group what they’d like to know about the deep-sea environment. “Then ROV operators would provide us with a realistic perspective on what could be achievable,” Macreadie said.

The paper described 10 questions that could be answered in part with ROVs. These include questions about animal behavior in deep-water environments, the distribution and ranges of ocean organisms, the physical and biological processes of the deep ocean, how the ocean is changing, which marine ecosystems are most sensitive to human impact and the degree to which industrial infrastructure such as oil rigs enhance ecosystems.

Most ocean scientists, it’s safe to say, are opposed to new oil and gas development, both due to its climate impact and the potential for environmental disaster, such as the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. But that doesn’t mean existing operations shouldn’t be leveraged for scientific discovery, Macreadie said.

“If we had to miss out on that data for the sake of avoiding oil and gas extraction already happening, I think most would sign on to that,” he said. “But we’re being opportunistic. It’s happening anyway, so let’s make the most of it. If they’re doing exploration, we might as well turn it into positive for us.”

Nevertheless, challenges remain. Victoria Todd, managing director of U.K.-based Ocean Science Consulting, which conducts marine mammal surveys and monitoring for industry, has found that, SERPENT notwithstanding, “it’s really difficult to get the information flowing between academics and industry, and I think that’s where the problem lies.”

Oil and gas representatives in particular “are naturally wary of having their data in the hands of academics” and are “mostly focused on ticking a box for environmental compliance and watching their profit margins,” she said, which makes her skeptical that valuable discoveries made by industry won’t just get “buried.” But as a reviewer of Macreadie’s paper, she has hope for the future. “It’s a great paper and maybe there will be the odd person in industry who will read it,” she said.

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