There are seven underwater gliders exploring the Gulf of Mexico down to a depth of 1,000 meters and contributing information for oil exploration.
There are seven Seagliders —autonomous underwater vehicles— that reach depths of up to 1,000 meters in the Gulf of Mexico and are used for decision-making based on scenarios and possible contingencies related to the exploration and production of hydrocarbons by Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX).
Researchers from the Center for Engineering and Industrial Development (CIDESI for its initials in Spanish) provide preventive and corrective maintenance to these robots. Aiming to develop their own skills and technology, they’ve created a Mexican version of an underwater robot. We tell you more.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 highlighted the need to study the seabed, as the ecological consequences of dumping five million barrels of crude oil into the sea are unknown (there were no studies prior to the spill).
In 2015, the Gulf of Mexico Research Consortium (CIGoM for its initials in Spanish) was created, including Mexican research and education institutions, and aiming to comprehensively study the possible environmental impacts of the gas and oil industry on marine ecosystems.
CIDESI, a CONACyT public research center, is part of this consortium in charge of the preventive and corrective maintenance of the seven Seagliders or underwater robots that provide information to Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) on physical, geochemical, and ecological aspects of the seabed.
The seven Seagliders or underwater robots were purchased by a CONACyT public research center called the Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education(CICESE for its initials in Spanish) from the Norwegian company Kongsber. Since 2016, they have been monitoring the seabed for PEMEX. They provide information on conductivity, depth, temperature, oxygen, and sea currents.
These Seagliders complement the information collected by oceanographic vessels, but in a less expensive way, and have already carried out 23 expeditions.
CIDESI researcher Tomas Salgado Jimenez explains that these robots weigh 52 kilograms and perform as if they were submarines. They control their immersion by allowing water to enter or exit, and by distributing the weight, they control the angle of immersion and direction.
“PEMEX has several areas assigned for oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s very important to them to know conditions such as ocean currents prior to oil exploration, for designing their structures or corroborating data.”
The robots can dive down to a depth of 1,000 meters and they can spend up to five months collecting information on their missions.
To date, none of this equipment has been lost, which says a lot about the good work between the CICESE robot pilots and the CIDESI underwater robotics team. At worst, they’ve been recovered with scratches from shark bites, but still in one piece.
CIDESI has created a laboratory to maintain the gliders after marine missions. The manufacturing company’s specialized and certified technicians carry out various procedures to guarantee operation.
Salgado Jiménez, who is responsible for the project, explains that CIDESI backs up the oceanographic information collected in the last mission, changes the batteries which power the Seaglider, calibrates the navigation instruments (such as its global positioning system, GPS), and checks all of its mechanisms.
One of the robot’s instruments is a Doppler Effect Sonar which measures ocean currents.
Then, the robot is submerged in a saltwater tank simulating the conditions of the Gulf of Mexico to make sure it is fully functional for the next mission.
One of CIDESI’s goals is to develop its own technology, so Salgado Jiménez has set himself the task of designing and constructing a Mexican glider prototype in collaboration with students and researchers.
“It’s very valuable technology, which is why we’re looking into the possibility of developing it, so we won’t have to buy from abroad,” he says.
This alpha version is called Kay Juul 2 (which means dartfish in Maya) and it can dive down to a depth of 100 meters, according to the tests they carried out in Bahía de Todos los Santos, Baja California.
Kay Juul 2 features GPS, tilt, depth, and altimeter sensors, and secondary instruments to monitor humidity, voltage, and electrical current.
The researcher explains that two master’s students and one doctoral student obtained their degrees thanks to this project.
They are searching for resources to design a beta version of this robot with more intuitive technology, as these systems must currently be operated by experts in robotics and electronics. Similarly, their maintenance and piloting require a very high level of specialized expertise.
Ideally, this Mexican technology will evolve to the point where a company will be interested in producing it on a larger scale because it will be necessary to continue studying the Gulf of Mexico’s seabed.
The seas of Mexico face serious problems such as pollution, accelerated loss of biodiversity, and climate change. These aspects not only affect marine life but also affect the health and wellbeing of people and the planet since the oceans are the great regulators of global climate.
Measuring changes in temperature, acidity, or ocean currents can help us understand the massive arrivals of bladder wrack in the Mexican Caribbean, for example. As they are interconnected systems, an observation system would have to be developed in the Gulf of Mexico to anticipate trajectories and minimize the accumulation of this seaweed on tourist beaches. This is one of the many issues these robots can be used for.