An underwater balloon defending the sea: OIE designed by Saipem

A unique invention to protect the Environment in the event of oil spills

Gulf of Mexico oil spill (2010) by NASA Expedition 23 crew - WikimediaAssolombarda

An uncontrolled subsea well blowout

Uncontrolled blowout of subsea wells is a threat that has caused a number of environmental crises in the past. The tragedy that happened in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform represents a decisive watershed in the identification of effective countermeasures.

Deepwater Horizon (2010) by US Coast Guard - WikimediaAssolombarda

Deepwater Horizon Platform

On 20 April 2010, the Deep Water Horizon platform caught fire while drilling the Macondo well (Gulf of Mexico) due to a valve malfunction. 17 people were injured and 11 lost their lives. Approximately 4 million barrels of oil spilled out into the Gulf of Mexico. The blowout continued until 15 July 2010 (87 days), the day operators successfully sealed the well. A ship located right above the well installed the device, a “Cap”, specifically built for the incident. In 2016 the movie “Deepwater Horizon”, inspired by the Macondo accident and starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell and John Malkovich, was released. These stories will not be told the same way in the future thanks to what you are about to read.

Incident zone (2010) by NASA's Terra Satellites - WikimediaAssolombarda

Official Trailer “Deepwater Horizon”, a Lionsgate Production directed by Peter Berg, 2016

Capping Stack Systems by Curtesy of OSRLAssolombarda


In the aftermath of the Macondo incident, the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers established a Committee called the Global Industry Response Group. The Committee brought together more than 100 technical experts from 20 companies around the world. They worked together to identify, learn from and apply the lessons of Macondo and similar well control incidents, developing recommendations to improve well incident prevention, intervention and response capability.

Capping Stack by Curtesy of OSRLAssolombarda

Subsea Well Response Project and Oil Spill Response Limited

One of the major developments of Committee’s recommendations was the creation of the Subsea Well Response Project, a consortium founded by nine leading oil & gas companies working together to enhance the industry’s capacity to respond to subsea well-control incidents. The Subsea Well Response Project designed and built a Capping Stack System which is an evolution of the Cap used for the Macondo incident. To enable a global response in the event of an incident, four capping stacks have been made available to the industry. They have been positioned in four locations (Norway, Brazil, Singapore, South Africa) selected for their infrastructure links to reduce logistical challenges in the event of an incident. Oil Spill Response plays a fundamental role in this process. It was selected to own, maintain, store and mobilise the technologies developed (Capping Stack Systems, Containment Toolkit and Offset Installation Equipment) on behalf of the industry. Oil Spill Response is the largest international industry-funded cooperative which exists to respond to oil spills, by providing preparedness, response and intervention services.

OIE operation overview by Curtesy of OSRLAssolombarda

The medium-low depths dilemma

However, soon several studies showed that installing these Capping Stacks at medium-low depths (from 75 to 600m) would be challenging. Working at medium-low depths is a very common scenario and in these situations these studies showed that it is not possible to operate safely with a vessel vertically above the well (method used to seal the Macondo’s oil spill). In case of oil spill at medium-low depths in fact the surface of the sea is often covered by hydrocarbons. Such a situation could generate potential fires while causing stability problems for vessels making almost impossible a safe and quick intervention. In order to solve this problem in 2011 Subsea Well Response Project launched an international call for projects to identify the best technological solution. Saipem won the contest presenting the Offset Installation Equipment (OIE), a unique system based on the latest submarine robotic technologies. With OIE it is now possible to install the Capping Stacks while safely keeping vessels 1 km away from the incident. Oil Spill Response owns the device and mobilises in the event of an incident. Saipem stores and maintains OIE always ready for action.

Offset Installation System indoor detailAssolombarda

The answer is OIE by Saipem

OIE hangar in Trieste by fabriziogiraldi + manuelaschirraAssolombarda

An Italian subsea robotic hub

Between Trieste and Marghera (Venice) Saipem opened an international hub focusing on subsea robotic technologies where it is testing and developing innovative robotic solutions. After 6 years, over 200 engineers and specialized personnel have been involved, 4000 drawings and documents have been produced, half a million hours have been worked and a production chain comprised of over 150 companies (in large part Italian) OIE has finally come to life.


OIE time lapse, Saipem Hangar Trieste (Italy)

OIE hangar in Trieste - Italy by fabriziogiraldi + manuelaschirraAssolombarda

OIE complete structure detail by fabriziogiraldi + manuelaschirraAssolombarda

OIE technical schemeAssolombarda


The main element of the OIE intervention system is the Carrier, a sort of underwater balloon weighing approximately 250t, remotely controlled by a robot (ROV) capable of aligning the Capping Stack with a precision of millimetres while the well is still discharging oil. OIE's Trained personnel safely control the Carrier from a vessel located 1 km away from the incident zone. The Carrier mainly consists of 4 tanks which can be filled with air to generate a net variable positive up to 150t. This characteristic allows safe transportation of the Capping Stack and the materials necessary to operate on the well through the incident zone. The Carrier stands 14 m in height, is 11 m wide and is 13 m long. It includes over 120 remote executions and more than 200 sensors that enable its functioning also in extreme environments.

Offset Installation System detailAssolombarda

Saipem is not new to extraordinary interventions. In 2003 it set a new benchmark by safely transferring to the surface oil trapped at 4000m in The Prestige, an oil tanker sunk in Spanish waters.

OIE equipment by fabriziogiraldi + manuelaschirraAssolombarda

OIE front detailAssolombarda

OIE simulation by Curtesy of OSRLAssolombarda

Saipem at GlanceAssolombarda

Credits: Story

We express our gratitude to Saipem ( and Oil Spill Response Limited ( for their support.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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