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Frank Odel (L) works in the pressure chamber that is capable of simulating pressure over 2,400 metres at Perry Slingsby Systems factory. (Jim Ross/Jim Ross for The Globe and Mail)
Frank Odel (L) works in the pressure chamber that is capable of simulating pressure over 2,400 metres at Perry Slingsby Systems factory. (Jim Ross/Jim Ross for The Globe and Mail)

Offshore oil technology

The robots at the bottom of the deep blue sea Add to ...

Visitors to the Yorkshire Moors are attracted to the heather-covered fields, gentle green valleys and charming market towns - the backdrop to Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. It's hard to imagine a lovelier spot in England.

The moors are also the unlikely setting for a key effort to help stop the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP's rogue oil well is into its third leaky month. In the unspoiled countryside just outside Kirkbymoorside, about 40 kilometres north of York, lie a clutch of old industrial sheds, where the famous Slingsby glider aircraft were made. The same sheds now make subsea robots, known as ROVs - remotely operated vehicles - used by oil companies in the Gulf and elsewhere in the deepwater frontiers.

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Watch the live video feeds of the erupting well on BP's website and chances are you will see one of the robots, with its jointed titanium arms, made by a private British company called Perry Slingsby Systems. The robots are operating 1.5 kilometres below the surface, where the water pressure would crush a regular submarine like a Coke can. The company's 130 employees know the gusher has created an environmental catastrophe. But they are thrilled their machines are doing what they can to monitor and fight the leak.

"There is a picture of one of our vehicles actually putting the cap on top of the blowout preventer," said Stephen Walton, a Slingsby senior mechanical engineer. "The fact that our vehicles are being used makes you very proud."

Subsea robots have been around since the 1970s. What is new is their technical sophistication and popularity, as oil companies tap deep reserves offshore. The most durable robots can work at depths of 3,000 metres - double the depth of BP's failed Macondo well in the Gulf. The next generation of machines will be capable of operating at twice that depth.

The robots and their operators don't always get it right. Last week, a robot collided with a containment cap on BP's Macondo well, the U.S. Coast Guard said. As a result, BP had to remove the cap that had been containing some of the oil, resulting in more oil gushing into the Gulf. It wasn't disclosed whether the machine, whose manufacturer wasn't identified, or the operator was at fault.

Slingsby is coming back to life after a brutal 2008, when the credit crunch and plunging oil prices clobbered sales, forcing the closing of its sister factory in Jupiter, Fla. The company won't provide financial details, other than to say that sales this year are recovering and are expected to be more than three times their level in 2004, when they were £12-million ($18.6-million).

Attracted by the potential growth of the subsea-robot industry, SCF Partners, a private equity firm with offices in Houston, Calgary and Aberdeen, Scotland, backed the management buyout of Slingsby three years ago. Slingsby, in turn, was folded into a new company called Triton Group, which became SCF's acquisition platform for a variety of subsea technology and services companies.

After a rapid-fire string of purchases valued at about £100-million, the group now has eight companies whose specialties range from deepwater video inspection systems to the development of the propeller-driven thrusters that make the robots "fly" underwater.

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It also makes crew rescue vehicles for military submarines, one of which was bought by the Chinese navy, and a tank-like machine that uses powerful water jets to blast trenches into the seabed. Slingsby is Triton's largest business.

Slingsby's flagship machine is a yellow brute the size of a minivan, though taller, called the XLX. It costs about £3-million and is a technological marvel.

It weighs five tonnes but achieves neutral buoyancy, thanks to millions of hollow glass beads stuffed into chambers at the top. It has eight video cameras and eight thrusters, allowing it to move in any direction instantly, and can carry a payload of 250 kilograms, from chemical dispersants to tools such as pipeline connectors. The robot is connected to a "tether" - the umbilical cord - which resembles an enormous spool of thread and sinks into the sea with the robot. The tether, in turn, dangles from power and communications cables lowered from the mother ship.

The XLX is stuffed with electronics that are bathed in oil. An oil-filled diaphragm prevents them from getting crushed by the water pressure. As the robot descends, the rising water pressure squeezes the diaphragm, which forces the oil into the chamber housing the electronics. At all times, the oil pressure within the chamber equals the water pressure without.

One end of the XLX features the two front-mounted arms that can move in and out, up and down or rotate 360 degrees. They are controlled by a joystick mounted on the "cyberchair" on the mother ship. In the hands of a seasoned operator, who can watch the action on his video screens, the arms are capable of great force, precision or delicacy. "We can pick up an egg with the arms, though there aren't a lot of eggs at the bottom of the sea," said Slingsby commissioning engineer Andy Walker.

Over the years, Slingsby and its competitors - Schilling Robotics of the United States and England's SMD, among them - have made about 1,000 robots for the offshore drilling industry. Each is in a race to produce more sophisticated and durable machines. "As the offshore oil industry goes deeper, the technology is getting better," said Carl Addison, Slingsby's operations manager.

The "ultimate goal," he said, is to eliminate the robot's tether to save expense and give the robot full underwater autonomy. Doing so, however, would require equipping the robot with exceedingly powerful batteries that have yet to be developed. The way the technology is moving, "we never say never," Mr. Addison said.

In spite of new restrictions imposed on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, Slingsby still sees rising demand for its products after a tough couple of years. In the unlikely chance the Gulf goes off-limits to deepwater drillers, the rigs will simply move to offshore Africa, Brazil and other parts of the world. Douglas-Westwood, a British oil and gas research firm and consultancy, has estimated that total capital expenditures on the subsea robots used by the energy giants and their drilling contractors will increase from the $1-billion (U.S.) spent between 2003 and 2007 to $2.1-billion between 2008 and 2012.

Slingsby is extending its factory and is constructing a new pool to test the robots in their element. But there's a problem. Biologists found a rare newt on Slingbsy's property, which threatens to delay the expansion. Slingsby employees aren't surprised or annoyed. They are, after all, building submarines in the middle of an idyllic Yorkshire moor.

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