Waldo the Robot’s Adventure at Dry Tortugas National Park

Technical difficulties prevented "Waldo" from assessing whether oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster was approaching Dry Tortugas National Park. These NPS photos show the submersible being taken ashore, and tested while tethered.

Editor's note: A great deal of technology has been employed in the fight against the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher unleashed by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Not all of it performs as expected, though. Shawn Frizzell, a National Park Service ranger normally based at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument but currently assigned to the South Florida Parks Deepwater Oil Response team, chronicles an effort to use a submersible to search for oil just beyond Dry Tortugas National Park.

There were great expectations when Mote Marine Laboratory launched an underwater robot nicknamed Waldo to look for oil and dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico just west of Dry Tortugas National Park.

Unfortunately, not long after Waldo was launched last week the autonomous underwater vehicle went astray in strong currents and stopped signaling valuable information. National Park Service personnel offered to assist with the rescue when it was learned that the sub had spent a silent night drifting in the currents.

The following day, after two hours of searching, a Park Service employee and two Mote Marine Laboratory technicians located the underwater glider floating in the Gulf of Mexico six miles southeast of the park's Garden Key. Waldo was retrieved and taken in to spend the night waiting to resume his mission the next morning.

The plan was to take the glider back out in the water, remove his wings and transport him to his new location to the north of Dry Tortugas, reattach his wings and begin transmitting again. But after being held near the boat with a tether for 30 minutes, the sub did not communicate with tracking satellites, so the crew returned Waldo to Garden Key.

Waldo is one of a trio of underwater glider/subs that Mote Marine Labs, which works with Rutgers University's Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, intends to have in the Gulf. There are also Blue Hen, Nemo and Carmen. They relay information by satellites, transmitting data on various conditions such as oil and other forms of pollution. Rutgers has some of the same type of robots that are working in the Gulf waters as well. The public may monitor the data of robot RU-21 that is drifting south near the loop current at: http://rucool.marine.rutgers.edu/deepwater/

But, where’s Waldo? Well, he had to be flown back to the mainland where he is being given a thorough examination. Last report was he needed an antenna adjustment. The plan is to return Waldo very soon to the water so he can resume his mission in the Gulf of Mexico.