In the post-September 11 era, the officers in the New York Police Department's scuba unit have gotten used to working double time during Fleet Week, when Navy ships and the piers at which they dock have become potential targets for a terrorist attack. But thanks to a new seafaring robot, the task of checking for underwater bombs has become much easier this year.
Previously, Fleet Week meant that the elite unit of NYPD divers had to take a break from their usual search and rescue duties to give the hulls of all large vessels visiting New York Harbor, including cruise ships, a thorough going-over. In an arduous, dangerous, and rather mucky process, they searched by hand for explosives, contraband, and other suspicious devices attached to the bottoms of ships and pier pilings.
Now, four submarine robots, bought in January at a cost of more than $27,000 each with a federal counterterrorism grant, can do much of the work for them.
"It's very dangerous to search under a vessel," the head of the NYPD scuba unit, Lieutenant John Harkins, said. "We used to have to shut down the whole ship."
The nicks and scratches visible on the yellow plastic surface of one of the department's devices, known officially as remote operating vehicles, attest to the hazards of the job.
Yesterday morning, aboard a police boat docked at a Brooklyn pier, Lieutenant Harkins and two other members of the scuba unit, Detectives Liam Divine and James Arca, hooked up the ROV to its long matching yellow cable and tossed it overboard. The robot, about the size and shape of a professional video camera, but with propellers, puttered away, then dove into the brown river water amid a cloud of bubbles.
The cable keeps the device attached to the boat and also transmits video and sonar feeds to two briefcase-size computers manned by Detective Divine. One briefcase holds the controls for directing the robot and a screen for the video feed. The other shows the sonar readings - echoes of sound vibrations the robot bounces off of objects as far as 500 feet in front of it.
The usual view from the video is a murky landscape of barnacles and slime. The biggest threat the ROVs have faced so far are the claws of startled crabs lunging at them from out of the mud.
The possibility they could find something more sinister is real, Lieutenant Harkins said. In the days when they used to search by hand, he said, his unit discovered hundreds of kilos of cocaine and other drugs in torpedo-shaped containers clamped onto the undersides of ships.
It's not a stretch of the imagination that someone seeking to attack a ship or a pier could use a similar method, he added.
"There's a connection between drug dealers and terrorism," he said, noting the narco-terrorism that afflicts Colombia. "They cooperate with each other."
Police officials say they are particularly concerned about high-profile ships, such as the Queen Mary 2, currently docked in Brooklyn. Along with the Navy ships, the scuba unit performed a check on that ship this week, as well as on all of the tugboats and sewage barges that service it.
If they had spotted something suspicious on the ROV's video feed, Lieutenant Harkins said, NYPD divers would have been sent to double check and examine the object themselves.
He noted that despite the time saved with the robots, the unit is often swamped with work.
"We still have our old duties," Lieutenant Harkins said. The counterterrorism work, he said, has "doubled our workload."
The scuba unit, with only 31 members, is responsible for recovering drowning victims and evidence, such as guns thrown into the river. When someone threatens to jump off a bridge, the unit responds. Last week, police divers were on hand to help recover a baby carriage thrown into the Hudson River. They were relieved to find it had been empty.
The department is soon due to receive four more ROVs that will further expand the unit's robotic search efforts.
In recognition of their hard work, Commissioner Raymond Kelly promoted many of the officers in the unit to detective in March.
Lieutenant Harkins said members of the unit don't mind the workload.
"Everyone was affected by September 11," he said. "Everybody's happy to be doing something to protect the city."