Gulf Spill One Year Later: Lessons for Robotics

Better automation needed? Maybe not. But certainly more robots

5 min read
Photo: BP

20 April 2011—A year ago today, an explosion onboard the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and sank the rig, starting the largest oil spill in American history. Government scientists estimate that a total of 780 000 cubic meters of oil seeped into the sea before BP successfully cemented the well in September.

The spill could have been much worse had it not been for the help of sophisticated remotely operated vehicles (ROVs)—car-size multiton robots engineered to be the hands and eyes of subsea operations too deep and too risky for human divers. As the world watched live streaming video of the robots working to repair the damaged rig, viewers came to understand that such robots "aren’t just handy but essential," says Tyler Schilling, president and CEO of Schilling Robotics, based in Davis, Calif., which manufactured four of the ROVs that operated at Deepwater Horizon and all of the robots’ manipulator arms.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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