How Scientists are Using Drones to Fight the Next Big Oil Spill

Researchers are deploying drones and sensors off the Florida coast to predict the impact of the next Deepwater Horizon.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion.John Mosier/ZUMA

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


This story first appeared on the Atlantic website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

More than three-and-half years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster spewed millions of gallons of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists are launching drones and ocean-going sensor arrays off the Florida coast in an effort to map the path of future oil spills before they devastate beaches and coastal ecosystems.

Researchers from the University of Miami and other scientists are placing 200 GPS-equipped “drifters” in the surf zone just off Fort Walton to map where the ocean currents take the devices. Sensors placed on the ocean surface and seabed will track the movement of colored dye that will be released during the three-week experiment that began today. Two drones outfitted with GoPro cameras will also monitor where the currents take the drifters and dye. Since the drones can only stay aloft for an hour at a time, a camera-carrying kite will also be deployed.

All the data collected will be used to construct a computer model of near-shore ocean currents to predict how future oil spills or other pollutants will disperse as the approach the shore.

“Computer models will be able to give us better estimates of where the oil spill will go, and how fast and in which patterns it will spread,” Tamay Özgökmen, a University of Miami professor and the director of the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbons in the Environment, told The Atlantic in an email. “This can help emergency responders to better direct their limited resources. In the longer term, models are also helpful to make sense of any ecological damage that may have occurred in the environment.”

For instance, that model can also predict where currents will carry shrimp larvae—crucial information given the importance of fishing to the Gulf Coast economy.

The Surfzone Coastal Oil Pathways Experiment is part of a larger $500 million effort funded in part by oil giant BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Depending on the strength of the currents, the drifters and drones will be deployed over an area that could stretch from hundreds of square yards to many square miles, according to Özgökmen.

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest