The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Developing Offshore Energy Safely

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted May 9, 2014

The late-afternoon sun shimmers on the Savannah River, creating thousands of points of light that make it hard to see some men on a motorized skiff upriver, dumping large sacks of material into the water. It’s dog chow. The brownish kibble bobs on the surface – much the way coagulated oil behaves, stretching out in undulating strands, driven by the water currents. The scene across from Savannah, Ga.’s historic district is an exercise, a demonstration of the way multiple innovative technologies deploy to identify and respond to an accidental oil spill.

Preventing spills, preparing for the possibility of spills, responding to incidents and restoration planning were the focus of the 2014 International Oil Spill Conference – a week-long discussion/demonstration of industry’s commitment to safe and responsible energy development and environmental safety. The exercise on the Savannah River shows how robotics, modern communications and other techniques pinpoint a spill’s location while feeding video, photos, water samples and other data to decision makers nearby or half a world away via satellite link.

Breton Island

Chris Controller Tent

As the river demo unfolds, Chris Keon (left) watches and waits for his turn in the demo, thumbs poised near the toggles of what essentially is a video game controller. Keon is president/CEO of Emergency Services Unmanned Support or ESUS – and today, chief ROV operator. Keon’s past military training as an operator of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and submersible remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) with the 82nd Airborne makes him a highly valued asset in a number of scenarios, including oil spill response. He partners with David Copenhaver of IPS Nexgen. They’re among a community of robotics/ communications specialists, many of them former members of the military, who’re applying what they learned in the service to emergency response scenarios. Copenhaver (below) talks about the advantages of UAVs and ROVs in oil spill incidents:

“No. 1 is speed. It’s really important to get information quickly, and so we can quickly deploy a robot many times much more quickly than we can deploy aircraft. No. 2 is safety. Many times it’s so much easier to deploy a small tactical rotary-wing UAV or a fixed-wing UAV out of a backpack that you can go a short distance out and using specialized sensors be able to see things that the human eye would not be able to see – and without having to put a large airplane or large helicopters in an area where the draft from the helicopter might be disrupting the environment, disrupting the oil spill as well. We can quickly get out there and have situational awareness.

David UAV Tent

Indeed, as the Savannah “spill” drifts with the currents in front of the conference attendees, a helicopter-like UAV is launched from a small boat and hovers over the area to help tactical leaders determine the size of the affected area. Meanwhile, Keon’s ROV, working at the end of a yellow tethering cable, darts and dives in and around the floating “spill,” simulating the process of taking readings that will help leaders know the depth and concentration of what’s in the water. The ROVs at the conference can dive 1,000 feet. Other models can go deeper. The one Keon controls is equipped with an HD-quality camera, and side sonar that allows the operator to navigate in zero-visibility conditions. Copenhaver:

“The robots can work together. So, as we have aerial robots and we have surface robots and we have subsurface robots, the robots can share information, which gives you a force multiplier. So, now I can get the right information to the right person at the right place at the right time in the right format to make a quick decision that saves lives, that saves economy that saves in the environment.


“It’s so sophisticated with the sonar, that it has auto-pilot navigation. So if you see some target of interest with the sonar system, you can literally click on that target of interest or multiple targets of interest on your (operating) screen and the robot will automatically fly to each one of those targets of interest and stop and allow you to take a look at it. If you see something that is critical, you can press another button and the robot will stay on target at that depth, at that heading, at that distance from the target indefinitely. It won’t move even if the tides change … the robot will use its vertical and horizontal thrusters to stay on target.

ROV Driving

The demo proceeds. The vessel Breton Island sidles up and extends arm-like structures for deploying oil-containing boom. The dog food “spill” drifts and the exercise leader describes various monitoring capabilities on screens at the command-and-control center. Copenhaver and Keon have a mobile version, packed on the back of a four-wheel drive pickup truck that can get just about anywhere in the United States in a day or so. Keon’s military training made transition to this kind of work a natural:

“I got hurt and got medically retired, and as I was going through that transition process I was thinking about now what am I going to do? My career just ended and started to go back through all of my certifications, I approached the company that trained me while I was in the military and they said, yeah, you’re certified. … I was the first one they’d trained and then turned around and hired as an instructor.

Their mobile command unit has a satellite dish on top, allowing them to establish communications networks to link anywhere in the world. Information brought to the mobile center can be sent to anyone involved in a response scenario. Copenhaver:

“You don’t have to say so much now over a voice communications system that may not be interoperable with other people who have a need to know. You can just say look at this website and you can see what we see now. That capability amongst people who need to work together at all different levels during an oil spill – from the guy who’s on the beach with a cleanup bag to the tactical commander who might have multiple organizations who are working the spill, all the way to strategic command where they might be working multiple spills simultaneously, that kind of information is critical to helping them to continue to make the decisions that they need to make.

Robot technology, integrated communications, instantaneous information flow and more are available to industry planners and responders to manage a spill scenario. Much has been learned. While the goal is 100 percent prevention, industry is committed to respond quickly and efficiently if an incident occurs. It’s integral to responsible energy development. API President and CEO Jack Gerard at the conference:

“It is critical that our enhancements to prevention methods, our response techniques such as dispersants, in-situ burning and improvements to training and exercises are part of the energy policy discussion. Getting to zero incidents will take the long-term commitment to working collaboratively with all stakeholders and applying all of our best science, research and real-world data in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. With the growth in oil and gas development in North America and its resulting impact on jobs and our economy, we must continue our strong commitment to responsible environmental stewardship and strong record of safety. This means doing everything we can to prevent spills from happening, while also being prepared to respond capably should an incident occur.”


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.