Three major leaks began after an explosion took place on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, for which BP owns the lease, located off the Louisiana coast. The rig is destroyed but when operational, it was a cutting-edge rig with many processes either automated or controlled remotely through fibre optic connections.
BP told Computerworld UK that robotic submarines are being used extensively to help track and plug leaks following the disaster. "They're connected by cable to manned support vessels," said a spokesperson. "From there they are controlled and data is taken."
The smallest of the leaks was stopped early on, but hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil are still spewing into the sea every day from the other two leaks. Bob Fryar, senior executive VP at BP, said in a video from the company's Houston Crisis Centre: "A big part of the focus is to mitigate and stop oil leaks at the sea floor."
Five key options were identified for this, all involving vital contribution from the robotic submarines. The first is injecting oil "dispersant" at the sea floor.
Another is to attempt to make the blow out preventers - which sit on top of the well head 5,000 feet below the water surface, and control oil flow - function again in order to stop the leak. But Fryar described this as "like doing open heart surgery at 5,000 feet".
Other steps include subsea collection and capture of oil, and pumping material into the blow out preventer to plug the flow. The most standard procedure is drilling a relief well, but unusually this will be at a depth of 18,000 feet and will present a major challenge.
Specialised systems are checking the "type of oil" in each area, a BP spokesperson said, "which dictates what steps we take" for each instance.
Other technology including teleconferencing and workforce management are also in heavy use to help co-ordinate the many staff and volunteers attempting to stop the damage.
BP has advanced fast process modelling in place for normal day-to-day operations, and some of this may be in use as it develops ways to quickly tackle the current problems. The company could not immediately confirm details of project and people management systems in use to contain the spill, but it typically runs Oracle Primavera P6 project management software to coordinate complex operations.
BP also runs an in-house Operating Management System, which is implemented at all major sites and aims to help design and manage processes tightly and quickly. This, too, is likely to be in special use for the operations.
"We have our oil spill experts in place and they are constantly co-ordinating with the US coastguard and authorities," a BP spokesperson added.
The US Coastguard itself is using advanced satellite and aerial imagery to detect how far the oil slick has spread, BP said, and this information is being transmitted in data feeds to the oil giant in order to inform the containment staff and to contribute to strategic planning. The US Environmental Protection Agency also runs a number of risk and waste monitoring systems that are being consulted as part of the clean up, and it is conducting air monitoring flights.
Meanwhile, environmental monitoring group the Louisiana Bucket Brigade is tracking the effects of the spill, using the Usahidi free online mapping tool, the BBC reported.
In some of the worst instances of oil spreading rapidly, BP received US government authorisation to burn off some of the oil. That measure remains controversial but is argued by some as being less harmful than allowing large amounts of oil to spread.
Its latest move, this week, is to ship a giant 100-tonne funnel to the site, and then lower the funnel using the robotic submarines. From the funnel, oil will be collected at the surface by a barge and eventually by a temporary rig. But BP chief executive Tony Hayward told the BBC that with a water depth of 5,000 feet, lowering the funnel would be a difficult operation that had never been attempted before.
BP is now racing to deal with the remaining leaks, as pressure mounts to stop the environmental damage. The company, which is also battling to remove huge costs from daily operations, now faces additional expense potentially totalling hundreds of millions of dollars as it takes the necessary steps to combat the leaks.