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Coast Guard Could Get Help From Long Range AUV
May 24, 2017

As massive oil rigs continue to spring up across remote ocean locations and more and more huge oil tankers ply the oceans transporting crude oil, the distinct probability of environmentally disastrous oil spills increases. With the Exxon Valdez disaster as an example, imagine an oil spill occurring 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 (USCG) sends aircraft to survey the spill. Visibility is extremely limited due to the increasing amount of ice on the water’s surface. Consequently, response efforts take longer and are less comprehensive, increasing damage to the ecosystem and nearby communities.

Photo courtesy of Homeland Security's Science & Technology Directorate.

In an effort to help the Coast Guard deal with this type of potential disaster more effectively, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is partnering with the Arctic Domain Awareness Center (ADAC), led by the University of Alaska Anchorage and one of S&T’s Centers of Excellence, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to develop the Tethys Long Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (LRAUV).

While still in the prototype phase, the LRAUV is intended to assist with under-ice data gathering efforts where 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. 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. View the video, courtesy of WHOI, of a test of the LRAUV in action.

“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,” explained 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.

“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.”

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