Robotic Surveys Help the Study of Weathered Crude Oil at Louisiana Coast

Atlanta, GA
Robotic surveying team members from Georgia Tech and the College of William and Mary.

Robotic surveying team members from Georgia Tech and the College of William and Mary.

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One year after the Deep Horizon oil spill disaster, researchers
are trying to pinpoint the remnants of the 200 million gallons of crude oil
leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. A multi-institution research group led by Fumin
Zhang, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer
Engineering (ECE) at Georgia Tech, recently performed a 20-day survey using
student-developed marine robots at Grand Isle State Park in Louisiana, an area
heavily polluted by crude oil and is still undergoing cleaning efforts.   

Joining Dr. Zhang in this collaboration are Professor Michael
Malisoff, a control theorist and mathematician from Louisiana State University,
and Professor Mark Patterson, a marine scientist and robotics expert from the
College of William and Mary; this activity is supported by the National Science
Foundation. The research goal is to develop robotic surveying methods to
provide a fast response to evaluate the immediate as well as longer term
environmental impact of the oil spill or future events of a similar nature.

The Georgia Tech team has developed an autonomous boat named
Victoria that successfully performed autonomous surveys over a 300mx100m tidal
lagoon in the park under various weather conditions. The robotic surveying
methods provide a low cost and convenient way to collect data in the marsh
areas that are difficult to access by human-based methods. Large amounts of
data have been recorded from a crude oil sensor mounted on Victoria, which
indicated an average concentration of suspicious carbon-hydrates at the level
of 20-50 parts per billion. Such concentration, if confirmed to come from crude
oil, is not considered acutely toxic to fish and wildlife, but may have long-term
negative effects that are yet to be understood. 

In addition to Victoria, the Georgia Tech team deployed a
remotely operated underwater robot named ROV-Beta that has collected water and
sediment samples at spots where Victoria sensed high carbon-hydrate
concentrations. The composition of the samples can be further analyzed to
identify the species of the carbon-hydrates. The ROV-Beta has demonstrated that
it is able to collect the samples while keeping humans out of harm’s way.

An autonomous underwater vehicle, the Fetch, developed by the
College of William and Mary, has been performing autonomous surveys side by
side with Victoria. Drs. Zhang, Malisoff, and Patterson have developed a
control method that has enabled Victoria and Fetch to synchronize their motion.
Such cooperative behaviors between different types of vehicles are essential
building blocks toward developing a large scale, mobile sensor network to
monitor and protect a coastal area.

The Georgia Tech team has had great
contributions from the following ECE and mechanical engineering (ME) graduate
students: Shayok Mukhopadhyay (ECE), Steven Bradshaw (ECE), Chuanfeng Wang (ME),
and undergraduate students Sean Maxon (ECE), Valerie Bazie (ECE), Phillip Cheng
(ECE), and Brian Redden (ME). The full list of students who have designed and
built Victoria and ROV-Beta can be found at the website of the Georgia Tech-Savannah
Robotics-http://gtsr.gtsav.gatech.edu/.

Last revised August 1, 2017