Atomic Energy Commission robot inspired offshore industry’s remotely operated vehicles.
In 1960, Shell Oil and Hughes Aircraft companies began modifying a landlocked “Manipulator Operated Robot” – known as MOBOT – into one that could operate underwater. The result led to the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle), which revolutionized offshore petroleum exploration and production.
Much of today’s offshore oil and natural gas industry relies on remotely operated vehicles that can trace their roots back to Howard Hughes, Jr. In the late 1950s, Hughes Aircraft Company developed its Manipulator Operated Robot – MOBOT – for the Atomic Energy Commission.
Working on land, the robot performed tasks in environments too radioactive for humans. Weighing 4,500 pounds with hydraulically powered steel claws and television eyes, MOBOT was linked by a 200-foot cable to the operator, who used pistol grips and levers to control it.
In 1960, Popular Science magazine described the advanced technology in “Marvelous Mobot Will Do Work Too Hot For Man.” The article, which reflected the era’s fascination with science fiction and new technologies, began: “With electronic nerves, hydraulic muscles, and TV eyes, a robot whose arms are quite capable of playing golf or snuggling a blonde is ready to live far more dangerously than that.”
The accompanying photograph showed the “murderous impluse” of a mobot stalking a scientist, but as the caption explained, “Never fear, he (the scientist) has it all under control” by watching three TV screens. The U.S. offshore oil industry quickly saw the potential of underwater electronic nerves, hydraulic muscles, and TV eyes.
As the search for oil reached deeper into the ocean’s depths, traditional hard hat diving technology advanced to keep up. The advent of saturation diving and helium/oxygen mixtures extended depths and diving times. Saturation diving technologies also reduced the dangers of decompression sickness – “the bends,” but there were limits to what divers could accomplish in the increasingly hazardous depths (learn more in Deep Sea Roughnecks).
Shell Oil Company took the lead in transforming Hughes’ landlocked MOBOT into what would one day become known as an ROV. Beginning in 1960, a series of evolving patents described, “a remotely controlled manipulator device for carrying out operations underwater at an assembly position at the top of a well.”
Patents by Howard Shatto Jr. — named to the Offshore Energy Center’s Industry Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2000 — and others made Shell Oil Company the early leader in offshore development. Shatto explained how an underwater device patented in January 1965 particularly related to the offshore petroleum industry:
“A recent development at offshore locations is the installation of large amount of underwater equipment used in producing oil fields and gas fields situated many miles from shore,” he noted. “Many of the wells are being drilled in water up to 600 feet deep, a depth greater than divers can safely work.”
The inventor added that a primary objective of his design is to provide a “manipulator device” with articulated arms that can secure itself to a wellhead on the ocean floor. “Each of the arms is provided at its outer end with a suitable suction means in the form of a suction cup,” he explained.
Swimming Socket Wrench
According to the Offshore Energy Center, Shatto led in the “design of the first subsea wellheads for drilling and production using an ROV” and became “a world-respected innovator in the areas of dynamic positioning and remotely operated vehicles.”
The inventor “conceived the world’s first automatic control for dynamic positioning on Shell’s Eureka core drillship in 1960.” The innovative vessel “controlled surge, sway and yaw independently and resolved thruster commands.” Shatto would also lead in the development of “drilling without anchors” — the Sedco-445, considered “the world’s first dynamic positioning oil exploration drillship.”
When Hughes Aircraft Company built the first marine MOBOT for Shell Oil Company, the company adapted sonar and television cameras for navigation, propellers for propulsion, and an umbilical cable for control. With a mechanical arm, the offshore robot could turn bolts, operate valves and attach control hoses and guide lines.
“It was basically a swimming socket wrench,” reported a Shell engineer, describing the 14-foot, 7,000-pound underwater robot. Because of the necessity to pay traditional divers to rescue a clumsy, often entangled offshore robot, early models also became known as “a diver’s best friend.”
Shell Oil successfully used a MOBOT on a wildcat well in 250 feet of water off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, in October 1962. “It can swim, see, hear, and has a ‘nose’ that turn screws, work valves, and grip pipes and hoses,” noted the editor of Meccano Magazine in February 1963. “It can also wield a wire brush and other tools.”
Over the next 10 years, MOBOTs worked on 24 offshore wells – operating to depths of 1,000 feet for extended periods. The technology helped revolutionize the offshore industry worldwide.
Not long after Hughes Aircraft created MOBOT, a young engineer began working for the company in California. Ken Cowens’ first project was to analyze the sapphire dome at the front of a missile field at speeds of up to Mach 3. He would spend decades in cryogenics work related to heat transfer, and later use the knowledge to develop deep-diving technologies. Meanwhile, his wife artist JoAnn Cowans, painted award-winning oilfield scenes of Southern California.
After leaving Hughes Aircraft in the 1960s, Cowans formed the offshore technology company Kinergetics Inc., with offices in Tarzana, Californian, and Aberdeen, Scotland. Patented sub-sea products included a “Cryogenic Scuba,” followed by habitat environmental control systems, underwater television systems, and diving safety equipment. Among the latter was the “Stranded Bell Diver Survival System,” a life-prolonging survival means for a cold hyperbolic environment. Kinergetics also did an advanced project with astronaut-aquanaut Scott Carpenter.
Military Subsea Technology
During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy developed its own deep-sea technology for both submarine rescue and antisubmarine purposes. In 1963, the nuclear attack submarine USS Thresher sank with the loss of all hands 220 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass.
The only vehicle capable of reaching a depth of 8,400 feet was the Navy’s manned bathyscaph Trieste, which found and photographed the wreckage. Unfortunately, Trieste had little capability to retrieve objects.
In January 1966 near the coast of Spain, a U.S. Air Force B-52 collided with its refueling tanker, scattering debris and four 70-kiloton hydrogen bombs over the Spanish coast. Three of the nuclear bombs were recovered on land, but the fourth was lost in the Mediterranean Sea.
With a combination of divers and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s manned submersible, Alvin, the missing atomic bomb was located at a depth of 2,850 feet. To retrieve it, the Navy employed its new CURV I (Cable-Controlled Underwater Recovery Vehicle), which snagged the bomb and pulled it to the surface. The worldwide publicity of the Palomares incident briefly elevated the visibility of marine robotics, but they largely remained submerged in military, scientific, and offshore oil applications.
Secrets of the Titanic
In 1982, oceanographer and former naval intelligence officer Robert Ballard, in search of Titanic, approached the U.S . Navy as a possible source of funding.
The Navy cared little for the Titanic, but was very interested in developing Ballard’s fiber optic video system for deep sea survey and its potential to examine the debris fields of Thresher and Scorpion (lost May 22, 1968).
With Navy support and his highly classified mission presented to the public only as “a search for Titanic,” Ballard’s Argo surveyed and photographed both submarine wrecks, yielding invaluable data to his covert sponsors. Completing the secret mission’s final objectives with 12 days to spare, Ballard’s team used Argo to find the wreck of Titanic on September 1, 1985, to worldwide acclaim. For 73 years Titanic had remained hidden at a depth of 12,460 feet.
A year later, Ballard brought the Woods Hole veteran deep-diving manned submersible, Alvin, to the Titanic. Then, for the first time, the public was able to see deeper into Titanic’s ghostly decks through the fiber optic eyes of Jason Jr. Later the submersible was joined by another called Hercules, and the two highly sophisticated ROVs brought the technology to prime-time television.
Offshore Petroleum Production
While such “Eyeball Class” ROVs were well suited for marine archeology, observation and inspection, the demands of deep offshore oil production demanded further development of heavy “Work Class” ROVs that could be equipped with a variety of tools.
Today, such an offshore robot can weigh ten thousand pounds, lift over one thousand, and operate at 10,000 foot depths. The petroleum industry is the principle user of this class of ROV. Further offshore exploration is prompting yet a new generation of marine robotics – the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) which abandons the use of a physical cable connection to the mother ship.
Defined as “a crewless, non-tethered submersible which operates independent of direct human control,” AUVs make detailed maps of seabed topography and hazards that could impact proposed oil and natural gas offshore infrastructure. Modern, survey class AUVs remain an emerging offshore technology – separated from Howard Hughes’ simple MOBOT by only 50 years. Also see Petroleum Survey finds U-166.
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Citation Information – Article Title: “ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/offshore-history/offshore-robot. Last Updated: January 18, 2021. Original Published Date: January 13, 2011.