Special Reports

Mote to launch oil-searching robot today

Scientists plan to launch an underwater robot named “Waldo” today near Key West, patrolling for oil where it might be expected to appear as the Deepwater Horizon spill is carried south in the Gulf’s Loop Current.

The 6-foot, torpedo-shaped robots have been used by Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium to search for red tide bacteria, officials said.

This 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 Monday.

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

A third is scheduled to be deployed soon off Southwest Florida 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.”

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