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Can robots stop Gulf of Mexico oil spill?

Officials have dispatched robotic submarines to try to stop oil leaking from a sunken rig on the Gulf of Mexico 130 miles southeast of New Orleans.

U.S. Coast Guard

It's robots to the rescue in the Gulf of Mexico--or at least that's what British oil giant BP hopes following a disastrous explosion and oil spill at the Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil rig, 130 miles southeast of New Orleans.

Officials have deployed robotic submarines in an effort to contain the spill, which has grown to cover an area measuring some 1,900 square miles. BP quoted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts as saying the spill is "very thin" and on the surface of the ocean.

An ROV arm attempts to activate the blowout preventer at the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico.

The agencies have deployed four remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to the wellhead about 5,000 feet below the ocean surface.

They are monitoring the leak, which was discovered Saturday, as well as trying to activate the blowout preventer, a 50-foot-tall, 450-ton mass of valves that can cap the wellhead and stop the oil flow.

The ROVs--which include machines such as the Millennium by oilfield engineering company Oceaneering--have apparently been on the job for several days, but without success. While ROVs have been used by the oil and gas industry for more than 30 years, this particular mission is highly complex due to the great depth of the wellhead, as well as the first of its kind.

"If you can visualize it, it's like robotic arms doing something outside the space station," BP spokesman Ron Rybarczyk was quoted by The Guardian as saying. "It is operating something with a mechanical claw on it that grasps things and turns things and adjusts equipment way down at the floor of the ocean."

The 220-horsepower Millennium Plus weighs some 8,800 pounds and can descend 10,000 feet. It has a dual manipulator, as well as and fiber optic video and data links to surface operators. If the robots fail in their mission, BP will have to drill relief wells into the well bore to capture the oil, a task that could take months. Another idea is to install funnel-shaped covers at the site to capture the oil.

The Coast Guard believes the well is leaking about 42,000 gallons of oil a day into the ocean. Eleven workers went missing last week when the rig exploded and sank to the seabed. A Coast Guard search for the workers has been suspended.

Some are speculating that the accident is the worst U.S. offshore oil rig spill in decades. Let's hope robots can mitigate the effects.

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