Special Reports

Mote plans second robot launch Tuesday near Key West

BRADENTON — Scientists on Tuesday plan to launch an underwater robot named “Waldo” near Key West to patrol for oil where it might be expected to appear as it is carried south in the Gulf’s Loop Current.

The six-foot, torpedo-shaped robots in the past have been used by Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium to search for red tide bacteria, but now scientists there are using them to hunt for oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, officials said.

The robot, formally named an “Autonomous Underwater Vehicle,” or AUV, is equipped with a payload that can detect oil in the water, along with chemicals used to disperse the oil, Mote officials said.

Mote scientists launched a similar craft last week about 20 miles west of Venice, Fla.

A third is scheduled to be deployed off Southwest Florida soon to look for oil offshore between Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. The robots’ missions are financed with a grant from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice.

Short of sending researchers out in boats to physically take water samples, use of the robots comprises the only way to tell what’s happening under the water’s surface, said Gary Kirkpatrick, manager of Mote’s Phytoplankton Ecology Program.

“There are really large issues at stake for us here in Florida,” Kirkpatrick said.

“It’s not really logistically possible to have humans in boats covering these wide areas, constantly looking for signs of the oil spill coming toward our shores,” he added. “But we have these great robots that can do this 24 hours a day for three weeks in a row, so it’s important we use these tools.”

The massive oil spill in the Gulf resulted from a fire and explosion at BP’s oil rig and well last month near Louisiana.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.