The pilots behind the robot navy

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The machines that are fighting the Gulf of Mexico oil leak have been compared to platoons of Supermen: They work 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the sea, amid pressures that would crush a human. They’re built to capture 3-D video of the scene around the gushing well and send it up topside. They can detect objects hundreds of feet away using sonar. They can turn bolts, saw off broken pipe, hook up hoses and carry around equipment weighing hundreds of pounds.

But they’re just machines.

Those dozens of machines would be useless without the hundreds of humans controlling their every move from a mile away. And if you want to stay on their good side, you’ll call those machines “remotely operated vehicles,” or ROVs – not underwater robots.

“To me, as an ROV person, the term ‘underwater robot’ does conjure up a certain image,” said James McLauchlan, a Briton living in Portugal who has 25 years of experience in the offshore subsea construction industry under his belt. “I tend to think of something with a head, two legs and two arms … something that’s down there trying to make its own decisions, trying to make the best of a difficult job.”

The way McLauchlan sees it, the ROV is just a tool – a multimillion-dollar, high-tech tool, to be sure, but nevertheless a tool that’s being manipulated by flesh-and-blood professionals, via a local control center on the vessel or rig above, to help save the world from an environmental disaster.

McLauchlan isn’t involved in the BP subsea operation, but he keeps close tabs on it in his role as the head of ROV World, a website that serves as an online watering hole for the ROV community. His company also supplies subsea technology and performs underwater inspections for offshore operations. A veteran of the British Army’s Royal Engineers, McLauchlan spent 10 years as a commercial bell diver for the oil and gas industry, and for most of the past 15 years he’s been a shift operation supervisor for offshore ROV construction projects.

Nowadays, much of the chatter on ROV World focuses on what the workers behind the machines are doing in the Gulf. ROV pilots have been trading news and rumors, pictures and points of view since just after the April 20 oil-rig explosion that sparked the disaster in the Gulf.

As you’d expect, most of the postings see the situation through the eyes of the men behind the joysticks. For example, BP interrupted the collection of thousands of barrels of oil last week because of problems with a line leading up from the leaking well’s containment cap. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government’s point man on the oil-spill response, said the problem arose because an ROV bumped into the cap – but not all of ROV World’s patrons were buying that explanation.

“Let me guess – Thad Allen again?” one posting read. “Meanwhile, back in the real world, Enterprise had gas alarms and moved off 400 meters, resulting in cap moving 40 meters off the BOP [blowout preventer].”

During our conversation, McLauchlan stressed that the pilots are careful to execute only the commands they are given, under the watchful eyes of supervisors and clients.

“The fact that the well is not good, and that BP has lost control of it, that’s self-evident,” McLauchlan told me. “That doesn’t really detract from subsea operations. … Whether there’s a well that is out of control, or whether a well is in normal operation, we carry out operations as suggested by the client. We provide the eyes and the ears for the client, but at the end of the day, it’s the client who decides what action should be taken.”

McLauchlan estimated that more than 97 percent of the world’s ROV pilot techs are male. For the Gulf of Mexico operation, ROV crews are housed for weeks at a time aboard the dozens of vessels and rigs surrounding the leaking well. Each crew works a 12-hour shift, finishing up with “toolbox time” to brief the crew taking over for the next 12-hour shift. In an on-the-scene report from one of the drillships, The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach notes that workers can take advantage of workout rooms, foosball tables, video games, TV and Internet during their off hours. But drinking and “horseplay” are not allowed.

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