BY James McLean, ABN subsea features writer & director of subsea consultancy firm Zenocean
BACK in the early 1970s I joined Comex Diving, the largest commercial diving company at the time. Soon after, a very small subsea vehicle, or as some today would say, drone, appeared on the scene.
The Hydro Products RCV-125 (Remote Controlled Vehicle) was a 20-inch spheroid fitted with four small electric motors and a black and white TV Camera. The choice of diameter was not random, it was a specific size for a very good reason.
The little flying eyeball was designed to deploy through the torpedo tube of military submarines for the purposes of mine reconnaissance, as well as making sure the submarine’ missile hatches were in an open position and ready for launch.
Our diving safety manager appeared in the office gleefully waving a specification sheet of the 125, declaring ‘here comes the future’. All divers present refused to buy into the idea saying ‘it would never catch on’!
Very quickly, however, the machine caught the eye of the offshore market and the later version, the RCV 225, eventually took the industry by storm.
By 1982 manned submarines operating within the offshore sector were put out to grass and ROV’s flooded the market. The ROVs were initially used for diver support, providing much-needed light or a route to the job, or aiding the diver’s return to the safety of the diving bell in a hurry.
Now nearly 50 years later autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV’s) offer another step-change in subsea operations. It can be argued that unplanned events such as catastrophic failures will still dictate a need for diving, however, more and more remote/autonomous operations will surely increase.
These days AUV’s are not new and some specialist versions have been plumbing the oceans on year-long trips thousands of miles from home base, surfacing with data, or surfacing to covertly acquire communications and then upload their stash to airborne drones, then submerge again for the next leg of the journey.
The boundaries between war and peace have been blurring and now the UK have declared they are reshaping their armed forces and are combining drones with artificial intelligence for overt and covert activities.
Israeli-made suicide drones small enough to be carried on a soldiers back are already in existence. Scenarios for swarm attacks designed to overwhelm defences have been well worked through by a number of nations.
What does this have to do with the offshore sector?
Well, just like the little, very underpowered RCV 225 all those years ago, what starts in a military role usually finds its way into the commercial sector at some stage.
A few years back, whilst enrolled on St Andrews University’s International Terrorism Studies course I studied the potential of drone swarms posing threats to defences, and it led me to think about pairs, groups, or swarms of vehicles being deployed from a shore base, or even from an offshore location, topping up their electrical power at remote charging points along the way, parking up in seabed motels between missions and operating in consort with air-based drones?
Mission times could be measured in days or weeks, rather than hours. Control could be achieved from shore via floating or tethered buoys, or fixed platforms.
Airborne drones could also upload data from their ocean-based partner, or download workpacks. Drone-to-drone data transfer has already happened within a military context and huge benefits would exist by taking risky launch/recovery sequences out of the equation resulting in less or no weather downtime.
There was a recent case of a large airborne drone delivering a package to an offshore platform, the flight range being 100km each way. That helps to prove the scope for some kind of joint air/sea operations.
It’s pleasing to see that at least part of this idea has gained traction as over the past eighteen months, a commercial ROV operator has made great strides with an electric work class ROV traditionally located on the seabed, but controlled from an onshore base via a surface communications buoy. Mission times have ranged from a few days up to as much as two months with no surface ship support in attendance.
The offshore industry and the UK military are now collaborating to develop new generation technologies in the areas of subsea autonomous systems, specifically, power and communications – sensors, detection, navigation, processing and data fusion – deployment and modularity – operations.
The energy sector isn’t likely to need swarms of suicide drones any time soon, but with the arrival of AI and machine learning, the scope for advancement is huge.
With North Sea fields becoming smaller and more remote from existing export infrastructure, the potential cost savings offered by autonomous technology might just help to bring these reserves onstream.