Imagine the following scenario: An oil spill occurs several miles off the Alaskan coast. Timely containment is critical to mitigate the damage to the environment and local fisheries, but the autumn sea ice is starting to build up. The U.S. Coast Guard sends aircraft to survey the spill. Visibility is extremely limited due to the increasing amount of ice on the water’s surface. As a result, response efforts take longer and are less comprehensive, increasing damage to the ecosystem and nearby communities.
To help the Coast Guard address this potential disaster, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is partnering with the Arctic Domain Awareness Center (ADAC) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to develop the Tethys Long Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (LRAUV). ADAC is one of S&T’s Centers of Excellence.
While still in the prototype phase, the LRAUV is intended to assist with under-ice data gathering efforts. To date, WHOI has developed search algorithms, arrayed sensor packages, and is currently joining the sensors to a new LRAUV model using the Tethys platform. This platform can be deployed by two people with relative ease, reaching an unprecedented 600+ KM range at approximately two knots speed, and requires no special handling equipment to deploy or recover.
“We are creating robotic systems that are small, mobile, connected, and enduring, making them a perfect match for the remote Arctic. Our goal is to give the Coast Guard the ability to understand an incident while there is still time to react,” explains James G. Bellingham, Director of WHOI’s Center for Marine Robotics.
Once complete, the LRAUV will be a propeller-driven robot used in situations too dangerous for humans. It’s designed to be transported via helicopter and pitched into an open water zone, where it can then guide itself to the site of an environmental hazard. After the platform is deployed, response teams will place a long-range maritime antenna buoy in the water to relay information back to an on-shore coordination center. The LRAUV will then send three-dimensional mapping of spill sites from underneath the ice, providing comprehensive data that wouldn’t be available from overhead imaging techniques. The Coast Guard can use the data to more rapidly develop detailed response plans, so having timely, accurate information from the LRAUV will be a critical component of response.
“The Propeller Driven Long Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (LRAUV) provides USCG Arctic operators the ability get readily sensors on scene, under sea ice, and map a spill at remarkably long distances…all without needing special handling equipment,” explains ADAC Executive Director retired Maj. Gen. Randy “Church” Kee.
Even in logistically accessible, ice-free oceans, characterizing the extent and nature of a spill can be difficult. This was evident in the 2010 “Deepwater Horizon” oil spill in the Macondo Canyon, which resulted in an unprecedented amount of petroleum being released into the Gulf of Mexico. The response in this case benefited from early generation remotely-controlled underwater vehicles that helped characterize the nature of the well blow-out. While these vehicles were limited in range and time on-station, they proved useful to on-scene operators and encouraged further scientific discovery and development.
“Integral to effective response operations is knowledge of where the oil is and predicting where the oil may go.” said Captain Joseph B. Loring, Chief of the Coast Guard’s Office of Marine Environmental Policy. “With better real time data, more effective response strategies can be developed and deployed. Given the additional complexity of conducting response operations in ice infested waters, whether in the Arctic or in the Great Lakes, having the ability to detect and characterize the oil extent under ice can greatly enhance effective response actions.”
As commercial development and traffic in the Arctic increase, so too do the risk of oil spills. Mitigating the potential damage caused by environmental hazards will be difficult given unique regional challenges: Seasonal sea ice, limited ports, few expeditionary launch structures, vast distances to travel, and remoteness from assets will complicate response efforts. Thankfully, progress being made on the LRAUV will help ensure that in the years to come, the Coast Guard has an information-gathering capability tailored to overcome Arctic obstacles.
S&T’s Centers of Excellence (COEs), like the ADAC, work closely with the homeland security community to develop customer-driven, innovative tools and technologies to solve real-world challenges. ADAC, led by the University of Alaska Anchorage, develops and transitions technology solutions, innovative products, and educational programs to improve situational awareness and crisis response capabilities related to emerging maritime challenges posed by the dynamic Arctic environment.