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Fleet of drones is the future of offshore drilling: Study

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The National Academies of Sciences' Gulf program called for the creation of a fleet of robotic ships, miniature drone-like submarines and underwater gliders to track oil flows along the Gulf of Mexico's underwater currents. (State Lands Commission via AP)

A fleet of drones would be a key part in staving off another major offshore oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a new report issued by a task force created after the worst oil spill in the energy industry's history.

The National Academies of Sciences' Gulf program issued a report Wednesday that calls for investments in all manner of autonomous vessels, including miniature drone-like submarines and underwater gliders to track oil flows along the Gulf's sometimes unpredictable underwater currents.

Tracking oil's movements under the water, not just at the surface, became a key problem after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The academies' Gulf program was created in 2013 from the legal settlements with BP and other companies involved in the massive 2010 spill that leaked more than 3 million barrels of crude oil and killed 11 oil workers.

Since the spill came from a massive oil-rig blowout deep under the sea, the oil collected in plumes extending from the sea floor, not just as a slick on the ocean's surface. That made it difficult to track the oil's migration and to remove it from the water table, according to the study.

Its recommendations are meant to enhance the offshore energy system's safety, protect human health and the environment, and advance science and the ability "to generate long-term benefits for the Gulf of Mexico region and the nation," according to the national academic research program.

The report is being released as the Trump administration is expected to issue its updated version of the Interior Department's five-year offshore drilling plan. The plan is expected to include expanded drilling off the Atlantic coast and the Arctic, as well as additional opportunities in the Gulf.

The Obama administration had excluded a number of areas, such as the Atlantic, from its drilling plan, which went into effect last year. The new report's recommendations also come as the new tax law gives Gulf states a bigger share of offshore drilling revenue from federal leases. The bipartisan measure would help fund the Gulf's expensive restoration and maintenance efforts.

That increased revenue could be necessary to fund the National Academies' high-tech recommendations, which include drones to serve as data retrieval platforms, the release of 20 devices called gliders that fly through the water table using the ocean current to collect data, as well as other autonomous vehicles.

It also calls for the development of more advanced underwater autonomous vehicles that could stay submerged for weeks or even months to collect ocean current data.

An array of sensors also would be scattered on the sea floor, along with dozens of sensor floats on the surface, to collect data. An above-water radar system is also recommended to help collect real-time data on current movements in the oil and gas producing areas of the Gulf.

The report also calls for continued support of space-based altimeters and radiometers to provide sea surface height, temperature and color.

The Gulf program has $500 million over the next three decades to fund grants and fellowships to drive research and development on Gulf energy development.

The data would help coastal communities predict and forecast weather and climate change effects. The recommendations are projected to take about a decade to implement and cost $100-$125 million.

This article has been corrected to reflect the nature of the autonomous vessels and data collection.