Researchers aim to minimize the impact of oil spills

There may be changes ahead for the detection and clean up of oil spills and other offshore incidents. Researchers at Memorial University's Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, in conjunction with Provincial Aerospace Limited Maritime Surveillance Division of St. John's, are designing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that will enhance and complement current offshore monitoring efforts.

Dr. Siu O'Young is the principal investigator for project RAVEN (Remote Aerial Vehicle for Environmental monitoring). Part of his research group's focus is to address ocean environmental events such as the recent oil spill and bilge water dumping incidents off Newfoundland 's coast. “The RAVEN project is geared toward providing additional maritime surveillance support for this province. RAVEN is supported by Provincial Aerospace, a local company with

over 25 years of offshore aerial surveillance experience,” said Dr. O'Young. “This project aims to develop a maritime surveillance platform to address specific operating needs unique to the harsh ocean environment

of Newfoundland and Labrador. A successful UAV program would benefit spill response efforts by expediting resource response in all sorts of weather conditions.”

Currently, visual inspections of oil slicks are made from aircraft and vessel surveillance and then mathematical models are used to estimate the total volume of a spill. The RAVEN project involves the use of small, lightweight UAVs, which have the advantage of lower operational cost, easier deployment, longer mission times (up to four times longer than traditional methods) and the ability to perform multiple surveys. In addition, multiple UAVs can be deployed to work collaboratively.

Dr. Siu O'Young explains the RAVEN project to a reporter last year.

Faculty of Engineering assistant professor Dr. Kelly Hawboldt, with expertise in chemical and biological detection, says oil spills in Newfoundland and Labrador waters represent a serious concern. “Often the spills, whether deliberate, as in the dumping of bilge water, or accidental, are so far offshore that the detection and response to the spills is delayed. This is usually due to the fact that the necessary personnel and equipment required to track the spill and assess mitigative measures have to be transported to the site. Not only does the transportation introduce a delay, it is also quite costly.”

A mature UAV platform may also more easily detect the impacts of a spill on the marine life since it will not disturb the surrounding environment like a larger manned vehicle. “A UAV would have been ideal for the recent spill from the Terra Nova platform. It could have been deployed immediately from either the platform itself or from an adjacent ship,” added Dr. Hawboldt. “An assessment of the extent of the plume could have been quickly gauged and the appropriate mitigative actions taken.”

Dean of Engineering Dr. Ray Gosine agrees that the use of UAVs for any offshore surveillance will benefit both the environment and industry. “Building autonomous planes that can be used for observation and monitoring is an excellent example of locally supported research at Memorial that is both innovative and essential to the growing offshore oil and gas industry in our province.”