Army to demonstrate remote vehicle to remove underwater ordnance

Hew Wolfe
Hew Wolfe
John Coughlin
John Coughlin
Jeff Ledda
Jeff Ledda

By Ben Gutierrez - bio | email

PEARL HARBOR (HawaiiNewsNow) - The U.S. Army is set to begin a demonstration project that will use a remotely operated vehicle to recover and dispose of old munitions that were dumped off shore, which was the practice for years after World War II.

"Out of sight, out of mind, was the mental attitude a lot of people had back in those days," said Hew Wolfe, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Environment, Safety and Occupational Health. "So when they had excess, it was like almost after any war: any excess material or munitions, if it were close to the ocean, it got pushed into the ocean."

The 21-day project aims to remove the ordnance in a way that decreases danger and the chance of damaging the reef.

The process will begin with the Remotely Operated Underwater Munitions Recovery System, also known as ROUMRS (pronounced "rumors"), which was displayed for the media at Pearl Harbor.

"It mirrors classic Navy mine recovery," said John Coughlin of ARA Inc., which worked on the vehicle. "Except instead of using divers and people, we pulled the man out of the mine field and use an ROV (remotely operated vehicle)."

"The danger is that the things on the bottom go boom and you come up and you fix the ROV and you don't have to take anyone to the hospital," said ROV operator Jeff Ledda of Oceaneering International.

Ledda will be one of the operators aboard a barge who will manipulate ROUMRS while it is underwater, using cameras and an operating system that mimics arm and hand movements.

"Most manipulators are controlled with buttons," said Ledda. "They're not a very graceful motion. I can practically write my name with this."

"They're unique because they have a feature called forced feedback," Coughlin said. "So when an operator is moving the controller and the manipulator touches something, you feel resistance as you're operating it."

ROUMRS can carry up to 200 pounds of old explosives, which will be brought up to the barge to be X-rayed.

Then they will cut using a band saw that is in a shipping container and remotely operated for safety.

"We'll cut into certain sections," said Len Austin of Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a non-profit that re-purposes the old explosive material. "Once they expose the explosive filler, than they'll take it over to the next side to the oven to burn out."

In the past, the old explosives would have been burned, which created smoke and other toxins. Instead, they'll be baked in heavy duty ovens, which will cause a chemical reaction that will render them harmless in more ways than one.

"We may have a little fine residue, much like you'd find with a pizza oven, that is not toxic," said ARA Inc.'s Spencer Nelson. "It's not hazardous and is completely benign, so the explosives will be completely gone from the environment."

The Army has been monitoring and trying to clean up Ordnance Reef since 2002, mainly using divers.

"This remote vehicle itself is quite a treat because it's been adapted for this process, strictly for this process," said Wolfe. "So if we can validate the technology, it'll be great for everybody."

"We don't have a lot of doubt that the ROV works," Coughlin said. "It's just a question of how many munitions we'll be able to recover over the 21 days and how safely and how efficiently."

The demonstration project will get underway on Monday. The U.S. Army, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Hawaii Department of Oceanography and various contractors are involved.

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