Coast Guard to test new arctic oil spill tech

The U.S. Coast Guard will test advanced technologies including unmanned aerial and undersea vehicles for monitoring an oil spill in arctic ice in an exercise planned for September, the agency announced Aug. 15.

Tests of an oil recovery system, a skimming device, also will be deployed near ice and tested, the Coast Guard said.

The tests will be done in arctic waters as a part of the Coast Guard’s “Arctic Shield” operations exercise, with support provided by the Coast Guard cutter Healy, a 420-foot medium icebreaker designed to support arctic research.

Controlling an oil spill and recovering oil in ice-infested waters is at the center of controversy over offshore exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska where Shell and other companies hope to drill.

Critics contend oil cannot be recovered in sea ice, and there is concern that an undersea well blowout, similar to that in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, could contaminate large areas of the arctic.

Industry and government agencies have been limited in their ability to do arctic offshore spill tests, however. Federal law does not allow actual oil to be placed in open water even for research. This requires scientists to simulate oil in various ways for tests of equipment and spill containment and recovery procedures.

Several federal agencies and the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute are working with the Coast Guard in the September tests.

In tests of unmanned aerial systems, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Alaska scientists will deploy a PUMA unmanned aerial vehicle from the Healy, while Woods Hole researchers will deploy the SeaBED underwater vehicle.

The underwater vehicle will establish methods to detect, measure and map oil under or encapsulated in ice, the Coast Guard said in its announcement. The U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, or BSEE, is supporting research on sensors to detect and measure the thickness of oil below ice. 

The goals of the undersea vehicle tests will be to develop deployment and recovery techniques for sensors and test two-way communication, ice-bottom mapping and search patterns, the press release said.

Tests of the PUMA unmanned aerial vehicle will involve deployment and recovery from the Healy and the ability of the aerial vehicle to
support different Coast Guard missions in the arctic.

In a separate set of tests the Coast Guard will deploy a brushed skimmer system to simulate recovery of oil at the ice edge, with operations monitored by underwater video.

“This analysis will build on several years of oil-in-ice work, unmanned systems evaluation and underwater research at the Coast Guard’s
Research and Development Center that have included a series of winter tests previously conducted at the Great Lakes,” said Rick Hansen, arctic coordinator for the research center and lead scientist on the project.

The Healy is one of two U.S. icebreakers in operation. The Healy attracted national attention in January 2012 when it broke a path through Bering Sea ice for an unprecedented midwinter delivery of fuel to Nome.

The other operational U.S. icebreaker, the Polar Star, a heavy icebreaker, recently returned to service after a four-year, $57 million overhaul, and underwent sea trials in the arctic this summer.