New-generation remotely operated vehicles that live at sea could reduce the need for specialist vessels – this new way of working will reduce costs, proponents claim, but AI might enable much greater cost savings a few years from now
The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) sector is evolving. New technology is enabling the development of a new generation of ROVs that are ‘resident’ offshore – a concept that will reduce costs significantly by eliminating the need for ROV support vessels to deploy and operate them. Looking even further ahead, technology is being developed that will change the way contractors work subsea, with 3D vision and artificial intelligence (AI) further reducing operating costs associated with owning subsea assets.
For the time being, if you have a mental picture of ROVs in operation, that picture is almost certainly of a tethered unit controlled from a ship with an operator or operators sitting at a console on the ship, controlling the underwater vehicle and telling it what to do. ROV support vessels are designed and built expressly to deploy ROVs that cost a fraction of the cost of the ship. Operating vessels costs tens of thousands of dollars a day. How much less expensive might it be if you could dispense with the vessel and install ROVs offshore, provide them with power (from an offshore platform or batteries) and control them from the shore? How much more quickly might important underwater work be undertaken if the ROV was already resident in the field and did not need to be transported there by ship, and how might emissions be reduced by eliminating the vessel?
Providing answers to these questions is essentially what the concept of a resident ROV is all about, and experience to date testing them suggests that their advantages are considerable, that technology challenges involved in operating this way can be overcome and that the cost savings will be significant, which is good news for the offshore oil and gas industry, in which costs need to continue to fall if it is to compete against low-cost sources of oil, such as shale oil.
As the chairman of the International Marine Contractors Association’s (IMCA’s) remote systems and ROV division committee Trond Eriksen put it at IMCA’s most recent ROV seminar, the challenge is to find better, smarter, lower-cost ways of doing things that do not compromise safety or quality. Resident ROVs are one way of doing that, and as Mr Eriksen, who is Statoil’s principal engineer, subsea technology, told the seminar, reducing costs remains paramount.
Challenges remain, he said – such as the readiness of subsea infrastructure for resident vehicles, change in the regulatory environment relating to unmanned vehicles and scepticism and resistance to change – but there is already a very good business case for resident ROVs.
Speaking to OSJ in April 2018, another speaker at the seminar, Oceaneering’s ROV operations manager Arve Iversen, outlined some of the benefits of resident ROVs and described some of the building blocks that are being developed to facilitate operations by resident ROVs.
Oceaneering – the world’s largest operator of ROVs – is one of several companies that have been working closely with Statoil to develop and test resident ROVs. It was awarded a technology development contract by Statoil to develop, manufacture, mobilise and test a self-contained, battery-powered work-class ROV that would be deployed on the seabed rather than from a vessel. One of the keys to successful operation of the ROV would be the use of 4G mobile broadband that would enable Oceaneering’s mission support centre onshore to communicate with the ROV using a buoy deployed on the surface.
Mr Iversen explained that, ultimately, what Statoil was looking for was a resident ROV that could undertake a range of subsea tasks, such as inspection, leak detection and monitoring of subsea assets. The resident ROV the company uses as the basis of the project was its electrically powered E-ROV.
The E-ROV is capable of undertaking most common ROV tasks including inspection, valve operation, torque tool operation and manipulator-related activities. It is piloted from the shore using a proprietary remote piloting and automated control technology. By transferring ROV control data and live, high-definition video via satellite or high-bandwidth terrestrial network, Oceaneering can maintain real-time control of the ROV and its tooling.
Development, manufacturing and pool testing started in early 2017 at Oceaneering’s facilities in Stavanger, Norway, and in mid-2017, an E-ROV housed in an ROV garage with power provided by batteries was installed on the Troll field in the North Sea. With a 600 m tether, the vehicle had what Oceaneering describes as an action radius of 600 m around the platform.
The well on the Troll field was taken out of production and tests commenced to determine whether the E-ROV could undertake specified subsea operations whilst under continuous, uninterrupted control from Oceaneering’s mission support centre in Stavanger.
“The tests were a success,” Mr Iversen told OSJ. “The system operated successfully via a 4G network with low latency, enabling efficient communication and data transfers. After we tested the system on the Troll field, we transferred it to the Tune field, where further testing was completed in December 2017.”
Mr Iversen said that the pilot testing programme highlighted a few issues that might need tweaking – such as the capacity of the batteries, for instance, and their ability to provide power to the ROV over long periods – but the battery packs used are easily scalable if required. “There is plenty of space for additional battery capacity on the seabed,” he told OSJ.
Because the 4G network has little latency, there were no issues regarding the control of the E-ROV. The only slight issue was with video transmission, but Statoil has base stations across all its fields, and it is not expected to be a significant issue. In other parts of the world, such as the Gulf of Mexico, said Mr Iversen, there are low-latency long-term evolution (LTE) networks available that provide high-speed communications. If necessary, satellite communications systems could also be used to control the ROV, he suggested.
Oceaneering isn’t the only ROV operator working on resident ROVs, however. IKM Subsea has also demonstrated the use of in-field ROVs. The company’s business development manager Hans Fjellanger told OSJ that its experience to date strongly suggested that resident ROVs could reduce costs significantly, not just by eliminating vessels but because they can reduce the number of personnel who would otherwise need to be sent offshore, even for routine operations. Using a control centre of the type it has instigated has numerous advantages, he said, such as the opportunity to easily bring client personnel to the centre to observe work offshore. Another advantage he highlighted is the ability to continue to operate resident ROVs in weather conditions that would normally prevent an ROV support ship from remaining operational.
In June 2017, working on behalf of Statoil, it successfully tested a remotely operated, work-class ROV that was controlled from a shore base. In January 2018, its successfully tested a resident ROV in a water depth of 345 m at Statoil’s Snorre B platform. The ROV will remain on the seabed below the Snorre B platform and only be recovered for maintenance every third month.
IKM Subsea adopted a slightly different way to provide power to the ROVs it tested for Statoil. Instead of batteries, it provided them with electricity via an umbilical run from a rig. Mr Fjellanger sees advantages in this way of working compared with using batteries. He suggested that, depending on the type of work that the ROV was carrying out, a battery-powered unit might need to return to its underwater garage to be recharged more often than was strictly convenient. As resident ROVs evolve, he suggested, they will be able to remain deployed offshore for long periods, further reducing costs.
Resident ROVs are not the only way to reduce costs in the subsea sector, however, as another speaker at the IMCA seminar, the DFKI Robotics Innovation Centre’s Dr Thomas Vögele, explained. He believes that AI will also have a huge role to play, as do representatives of other companies at the forefront of the sector.
Dr Vögele told delegates that AI can also help reduce costs and ensure that operations are safer and can be carried out more efficiently. He sees AI as facilitating value-added operations by underwater vehicles, opening new areas for the potential use of ROVs.
This is a theme that Brian Allen, chief executive and one of the founders of British ROV company Rovco, is completely in agreement with. Rovco was founded to develop autonomous technology and AI and 3D computer vision for the subsea sector. It has been grant funded by InnovateUK, the UK innovation agency, to work on this kind of technology. The company’s chief technology officer Dr Iain Wallace was responsible for computer vision systems on the Mars Rover whilst working for the European and UK Space Agencies. With a PhD in AI, he has authored 17 papers on AI and computer vision, which tells you a lot about where Rovco is heading with the technology it is applying to ROVs.
Mr Allen agrees that, in the near term, for many kinds of work that ROVs currently do whilst deployed from a vessel, a ship will not be necessary, but he sees resident ROVs as just a step on what will be a more important journey in the long term towards ROVs that have a much greater level of autonomy and are able to provide much greater cost savings.
Using AI and 3D vision technology will provide what Mr Allen said would be “serious cost savings”. The transition to commercial use of resident ROVs may already be underway, but much technology of the type that Rovco is developing will be available not long afterwards – in as little as five years, he estimates.
“At the moment, you still need a pilot, whether the ROV is controlled from a vessel or from a control centre ashore,” Mr Allen said. “But at Rovco, we are pioneering disruptive technology that will break the mould of underwater operations in the way that Uber has. They started with vehicles that are driven by humans, but the long-term goal is driverless vehicles. That’s where we see ROVs going in future, making use of AI and machine vision – ROVs that will ‘reason’ about what to do when they are deployed without human intervention.”
Mr Allen and his colleagues anticipate that the future of ROVs is AI-powered autonomous operation, 3D perception that will tell us where things are and machine learning that will tell us what we are looking at underwater. In January 2018, it secured funding from InnovateUK for a two-part artificial intelligence demonstrator project potentially worth £1M (US$1.4M). The project will see it working in partnership with the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult to develop equipment and software required to produce live 3D data from challenging and extreme subsea environments. Phase two of the project will include the development of a 3D vision-based survey solution using AI.
Mr Allen and his colleagues believe that the technology could reduce offshore inspection costs by up to 80%, exploiting recent advances in camera technology and embedded graphic processing, while utilising smaller, less expensive, more intelligent, autonomous robotic vehicles than existing hardware.
Once trialled and tested, Rovco believes the technology could revolutionise the way energy companies manage and inspect their subsea assets, potentially saving hundreds of millions of pounds in offshore inspection costs each year. “People won’t suddenly be replaced by robots,” said Dr Wallace in a recent presentation, “but it will happen.”