BSEE, NOAA begin joint study of multiple remote spill-sensing systems

The US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration jointly began a study of multiple remote spill sensing systems at BSEE’s Ohmsett facility in Leonardo, NJ, south of New York City on July 22.

The three-phase study will employ Ohmsett’s 660-ft long, 2.6 million-gal capacity saltwater test tank, the US Department of the Interior agency said. Spill responders will be able to use its results to better monitor and measure oil slicks and emulsions in the marine environment and improve offshore spill response operations in the process, it said.

The study is the latest in comprehensive long-term oil-spill response research that BSEE and its predecessor agencies have conducted for more than 25 years. The program’s main focus is to improve methods and technologies to detect, contain, treat, recover, and clean up offshore spills.

“We have a pretty broad portfolio—anything that makes certain the industry is prepared to respond effectively,” Lori Medley, BSEE’s oil-spill response branch chief, told OGJ on July 25.

Remote sensing uses various technologies to acquire data on objects or events without making physical contact. Sensors either can be passive—responding to external stimuli and recording natural energy reflected or emitted from the Earth’s surface—or active, using instruments and technologies to collect data about their targets.

Range of technologies

Remote sensing from an aircraft, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), is the most common form of oil-spill tracking, according to BSEE’s web site. Satellites using radar sensors are becoming a viable alternative, and using visual satellite imagery to monitor spills also shows promise, it said.

For underwater remote sensing, most spills can be accessed by using remotely operated vehicles (ROV) and autonomous operated vehicles (AUV), although existing sensor packages need to be refined to meet needs created by this environment. A combination of sensors currently is used for oil-spill surveillance, presenting challenges in data fusion and delays in getting the appropriate data to responders, BSEE said. This makes it necessary to develop and advance new sensors and real-time data transmission technologies, it said.

“We’d like to minimize data acquisition and transfer time,” noted Jay Cho, who also works in BSEE’s oil-spill response branch. “We’re trying to develop several different approaches for various situations.”

The goal is to get more real-time data instead of delayed satellite feeds, Medley said. NOAA is involved because it determines penalties such as BP PLC’s fine after its Macondo deepwater well blew out and spilled 5 million bbl of crude into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, she added.

Current study’s focus

The current study will look at emulsified oil, Medley said. “When its oil concentration is above 25%, it’s harder to burn using existing technologies,” she told OGJ. “This study will try to evaluate their limitations and applications. We picked out given satellites on specific days, then flew fixed-wing systems and drones, followed by people gathering individual samples.”

Researchers will compare multiple remote sensing systems to determine how well each detects oil-water emulsion mixtures and measures oil thickness during the study’s first phase, BSEE said in its announcement of the joint study with NOAA. Remote sensors will view emulsified oil in the Ohmsett tank from different angles and heights and through different mediums to validate sensor capabilities, it said.

Above water, sensors on the “Ohmsett Bridge” will provide an up-close view of the water’s surface as an ROV provides an underwater view, BSEE said. Simultaneously, remove sensors on a UAV, a fixed-wing aircraft, and a helicopter will take measurements. Three satellites with remote sensors also pass overhead and provide space-based observations.

The study’s second phase, planned for late this year, will allow the research team to measure sensor performance in an open-water environment and compare that data to controlled conditions at the Ohmsett tank, BSEE said. “We hope to go offshore in the Gulf of Mexico in September, where we expect different results,” Medley said. “In the tank, its cement bottom reflects some information from elsewhere that we don’t expect to be present on the open ocean.”

BSEE said that development of operational methods and procedures for processing and interpreting the capabilities of the sensors will occur in the study’s third and final phase.

Contact Nick Snow at

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