At the beginning of September 2013, The University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi’s joint team of engineers, geologists, oceanographers and systems specialists encountered a near catastrophe when their $250,000 research vehicle Mola Mola malfunctioned and hit the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico, 150 miles south of New Orleans.
However, the team of specialists was able to contrive I-Spider, which in coordination with a Station Service Device (SSD) was able to rescue Mola Mola from a drowning death and a massive setback in research not long after the malfunction.
The Mola Mola Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) was developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and later acquired by the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST), an organization under the Mississippi Mineral Resources Institute (MMRI) at The University of Mississippi.
The Mola Mola was being utilized to study the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill with the Ecosystems Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf project. The team of UM and USM scientists were the on and off-ground coordinators manning the equipment and providing the research.
One of the six SeaBED class AUV vehicles in the world, the Mola Mola is named after the Ocean Sunfish, which has a similar form. The double name is also tied to the machine’s structure, composed of a pair of upper and lower hulls, separated by vertical struts.
Mola Mola has a maximum operating depth of 2,000 meters, and its function is to take pictures of the ocean floor to create photomosaics used by scientists for research.
The team of scientists who made up the researchers and technical staff operating the Mola Mola as well as rescuing the machine include Matt Lowe, Steven Tidwell and Marco D’Emidio of UM, as well as Vernon Asper, Roy Jarnagin and Max Woolsey from USM.
At the time of the incident, Mola Mola’s team was surveying areas around natural oil seeps where oil and gas bubble up from the seafloor. When the incident occurred, Mola Mola was busy taking pictures of the seafloor at 1,200 meters. The engineers operating the machine were monitoring its progress from a control lab on a ship.
D’Emidio is the navigator for the I-Spider and SSD operations. His role is to direct the captain of the boat according to the navigation and position of the vehicles in the water. According to D’Emidio, the only cause of the malfunction of Mola Mola known today was the flooding of the pressure house.
Max Woolsey is an Oxford native who holds a masters degree in electrical engineering from UM. Currently, he works for USM as an undersea vehicles engineer with NIUST. During the cruise, Woolsey was one of the operators of the two NIUST AUVs, Eagle Ray and Mola Mola.
“Although I would not consider myself a superstitious person, the failure occurred on the 13th involving Mola Mola,” Woolsey said. “In such a situation, the leak would first short out the main batteries, which would detect the short and immediately switch off.”
After the Sept. 13 failure, the Mola Mola finally sank to the bottom of the Gulf due to the loss of buoyancy.
The I-Spider was one of the vehicles used to recover the Mola Mola in combination with the SSD. The Mola Mola was recovered by the team because the SSD is an remote operated vehicle that has arms and thrusters, according to D’Emidio.
When the team was alerted that Mola Mola was down, D’Emidio recalled the MMRI team driving down to Cocodrie, La., in two vehicles for the rescue mission. The MMRI team of UM and USM scientists worked to improve and develop the I-Spider technology, along with the SSD.
Woolsey described the I-Spider as a system that takes many forms, but in one state, it mounts upon a cage containing the SSD. The machine maintains the fiber optic link between the SSD and the surface ship, providing a third-person overview of the work site as the SSD swims from its cage to interact with its surroundings.
“It is a great benefit of our cooperative program that we have such a diverse and complementary set of research equipment,” said Woolsey, who spoke highly of every member of the team involved in the operation. “When a system fails, we have the equipment and dedicated personnel to fix the problem.”
What is the work environment like for the team at MMRI?
“All of us work together as a team, as part of the same big umbrella that NIUST is,” D’Emidio said.
All members of the team work at Ole Miss in some form, whether it be on campus, at the field station or at the MMRI shop.
“For us there is no difference between UM and USM,” he said. “Our goal is producing cutting edge research in marine science.”
Currently, the team is putting together a list of engineering challenges faced in their research, and they intend on breaking those challenges into projects that can be researched by individuals and groups of students on both campuses.
According to Woolsey, the next Mola Mola mission is not scheduled until May 2014. The next few months will involve repairs and improvements needed to put the machine back in the water. The team hopes to get the Mola Mola back in the water in March or April of 2014 for a few engineering trials before the vehicle’s surveying season begins.
To read more about Mola Mola, I-Spider and UM’s research at MMRI, go to www.ecogig.org, www.NIUST.org and mmri.olemiss.edu.