At its greatest depths, the sea floor is a dark, tranquil, and foreboding place, beyond the reach of both sunlight and human divers. Yet the area around the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, nearly a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, is busting with activity--robotic activity.
Most of the tools for containing the vast spill on the sea surface—like skimming, burning, and using dispersants—are low-tech and have been in the oil-spill toolbox, mostly unchanged for decades. But efforts to contain and ultimately cap the spill on the sea floor are comparatively high-tech, relying on sophisticated remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) every step of the way. At nearly every press conference, BP officials emphasize the difficulty of working to conduct these operations at such extreme depths, where humans can't directly interact with the malfunctioning equipment. But how exactly do these ROVs work, what are their true capabilities, and what are their limits?
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