Would an Acoustic Trigger Have Prevented the Oily Mess in the Gulf?
Supposedly an acoustic trigger could have remotely sealed the under sea oil well that is currently spilling 210,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico.
Many news outlets are reporting that if British Petroleum had invested in this particular remote control technology, workers escaping from the burning BP rig on April 20 would have been able to send a signal more than a mile under water, causing 450-ton hydraulic rams to close off the well, almost immediately stopping the flow of oil.
Since they didn’t install an acoustic trigger, the people at BP are now shamefully watching their precious oil contaminate the once-beautiful Gulf, killing thousands of innocent sea creatures (as well as the price of their stock).
So why didn’t BP have a remote valve shut-off system in place? Most of the reports I’ve seen and heard blame it on the $500,000 price tag for an acoustic trigger . I know what you’re thinking: “That’s one expensive remote!”
Do I hear crickets chirping?
Okay, so maybe you’re actually thinking about the environmental and economic devastation starting to take hold in the Gulf; but please take one more moment to further consider the remote control technology that “could have” saved the day.
Was BP just trying to save a buck (er… 500,000 bucks) when they opted not to install an acoustic trigger in their undersea drilling operation that’s now hemorrhaging oil into the Gulf? Maybe. But we should also consider the possibility that acoustic switches aren’t quite as foolproof as certain outraged lawmakers and media outlets would like us to believe.
These pricey switches are used voluntarily in many offshore drilling operations, and are required by law for drilling off the coast of Brazil and Norway. So why isn’t this technology required for offshore drilling in the US?
Consider one of the earliest everyday remote controls, Zenith’s Space Command, which first appeared in 1956. This remote used sound waves to control the television it was paired with. History tells us that sound control didn’t last long on land; but why?
Zenith’s Space Command fell out of favor because noise in the home environment—say the plunk of a child’s xylophone or a squealing little brother—often matched the frequencies for controlling the TV. Accidentally changing the channel or powering off was all too common.
Could competing sounds be the same reason acoustic triggers aren’t the most popular item in the offshore drilling safety toolbox?
In 2003, the U.S. Minerals Management Service commissioned a report on whether oil companies drilling offshore should be required to install an acoustic trigger for remote valve shut off.
The report concluded that, “Acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be very costly, and there is insufficient data available on system reliability in the presence of a mud or gas plume.”
Hmmm… so it doesn’t really work?
I checked out the MMS report, and here’s what I discovered: the reason sound waves are not the preferred way to achieve remote control under water is same reason sound waves are not the preferred way to achieve remote control on land—acoustic signals leave too much room for error.
Under water, acoustic interference caused by the noise of a flowing oil well or a plume of mud can make the operation of an acoustic trigger unreliable.
It seems both land and sea are just too noisy for acoustic control to be especially effective. Other sounds can get in the way–skewing, blocking or mimicking actual commands.
In living rooms around the world, infrared light has been king of the remote control universe since the 1970s. Unfortunately for the little fishies of the Gulf (and every living thing on Earth), IR isn’t a viable solution for triggering emergency shut-off valves deep in the ocean.