Unguided deep-sea research is essential for national and global security

This Sunday on NPR I heard the following paraphrased comment: “The ROV pilots have never had to deal with anything like this before, no one has trained for the kinds of maneuvers needed to close to well.” I’ve known many ROV pilots. They are all incredibly skilled, know how to handle their robots, and generally have many years of experience working in industrial settings.

But commercial ROV work tends to be monotonous. Many pilots I know spend the vast majority of their time inspecting pipelines and oil rigs, flying over long tracks of seafloor with little to no variation, looking for any signs of damage. When their skills are put to the test, it’s often the same repetitive motion, over and over. Even training simulations to prepare them for catastrophes cannot predict the infinite variations that could occur as an oil-rig collapses. It’s impossible to train for everything.

Until you throw a biologist into the mix.

I’ve asked my ROV pilots to do some very strange things, from picking up individual limpets to manipulating a dye-injector. They’ve closed and open valves and pistons designed by undergrads who have never seen an ROV. We once even had an ROV pilot close a zip-tie (no easy feet with a 7-function arm). Every dive is different. There’s no way of knowing what to expect and the dive plan may change midway through with no warning or planning. In short, ROV pilots that have experience working with biologist (or geologists) are better prepared to deal with unexpected circumstances.

So if we want a standing crew of ROV pilots who are trained and prepared to deal with unpredictable scenarios, we can either provide more simulation training, or make tours of duty with marine science teams part of the training regime for all ROV pilots. If offshore drilling continues into the foreseeable future, then perhaps it should be the responsibility of the oil companies to fund unguided deep-sea research. Not exploratory or exploitative research, but research that allows the creativity of the scientists to challenge the skills of the ROV pilots in new and unpredictable ways.

Unguided deep-sea research is an essential component of both national and global security in the age of oil, and the oil companies, which benefit directly by gaining novel training for their pilots should provide the vessels, robots, and support.