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Oil spill responders turn to autonomous systems

Fri 13 Apr 2018

Oil spill responders turn to autonomous systems
AUVs could play a growing role determining the location and extent of oil spills

Direct observation has been the preferred means of determining the location and extent of an oil spill for many years, but that is changing as unmanned units enter the market

As in many other sectors of the marine and offshore industry, autonomous systems are set to play a growing role in oil spill response operations.

Underwater and above-water units are already being tested. Autonomous technology is advancing quickly, but there are challenges to be overcome, among them safely and accurately navigating autonomous units, communicating with them and enabling them to transmit data.

There are also many different types of autonomous unit, their size, capacity and range differ greatly and the sensors they are equipped with may not operate satisfactorily in every case. These and other issues were addressed in several presentations at Interspill 2018 in London in March.     

Dr Andrew Gates from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) and Sarah Hall, a response manager from Oil Spill Response Ltd (OSRL), described a joint autonomy project they have been working on making use of marine autonomous and robotic systems (MARS).

Their aim is to evaluate how autonomous surveillance systems, including platforms and sensors, fit into emergency spill response operations and the role that they might play in day-to-day monitoring.

They told the oil spill conference that autonomous systems have several potential benefits but that there are challenges to be overcome before they can be introduced into service on a commercial scale.

Among the obvious advantages of autonomous systems is reduced risk to personnel, but work needs to be done to understand the capabilities and limitations of autonomous systems and the resources required for their deployment and ensure that their use is acceptable to the regulatory agencies.

They told delegates that autonomous systems can provide valuable real-time data about an oil spill and about its extent. They have a potentially very valuable role enhancing situational awareness, but there are also issues such as data security to consider. Some areas might be inaccessible to their use, and there are also issues to address such as service provision – who is responsible for owning and operating autonomous systems – and what they described as ‘de-confliction’, that is, the need to control and prevent interference between multiple autonomous systems.

The MARS project has examined the use of a survey-type autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) capable of providing oceanographic data, seafloor bathymetry, imagery and biogeochemistry. Typically, it would be launched from/acoustically tied to a mothership and provide precise geo-referenced datasets.

Such an AUV could be deployed for long periods of time, ranging from several hours to days, they told delegates. Commercial systems and service provision are already available from some vendors, but each has its advantages and disadvantages. Some offer long-range operation, while others are small vehicles that are better suited to short-range operation.

For all the AUVs, navigational accuracy is a key issue, as it is essential to be able to attribute sensor readings to precise locations.

The NOC/OSRL team also studied the use of unmanned surface vessels (USVs) including diesel-powered short-range vehicles. In the longer term, other types of power and propulsion systems for USVs will doubtless become available.

USVs can act as ‘force multipliers’, they suggested, adding to the capability provided by conventional vessels. USVs also provide the potential for long-range operation, and some can be remotely piloted over the horizon.

Whether deployed under the water or above it, they suggest there are some key issues to address to make autonomous oil spill response a reality. These include sensor development, the development of lower cost AUVs and AUVs that can sample the water in their area of operation. Command and control of AUVs and USVs and of multiple units is another challenge, as is the development of novel, low-cost ways of deploying and operating them. There is a need for ambitious demonstration programmes to prove the capabilities of autonomous systems and for oil spill exercises and deployments to test them in the real world.

Building confidence in the technology is the key, they told the conference. As the capability of autonomous systems grows, so new roles will be identified for their use. Levels of autonomy can be expected to increase, and it is important that the industry arrives at a consensus view on good practice related to oil spill preparedness and response and the use of autonomous systems.

Javier Gilabert from the Technical University of Cartagena in Spain described the use of underwater robots to detect and track oil spills and work that an international consortium known as ‘expanded underwater robotics ready for oil spill’ or e-URready4OS completed under a 24-month, EU-funded project. Among the technologies examined during the project were communication tools to enable data obtained by UAVs and USVs to be transmitted to a command and control centre. He described the use of UAVs to determine the extent of a plume of oil and determine the total volume of oil in it.

Susannah Domaille, a technical support coordinator, and David Campion, a technical adviser at the International Tanker Operators Pollution Fund (ITOPF), also provided insight into the use of unmanned systems and highlighted some of the challenges involved in commercial use of UAVs.

These included the regulatory framework for autonomous systems and the fact that new legislation is being introduced controlling the use of UAVs that could affect those used during an oil spill response operation. UAVs need to be commercially licensed and approved by communication and aviation authorities, and without approval, their use in spill response operations could be delayed, they said.

Then there are so-called ‘transboundary’ issues to address should a UAV be deployed close to a boundary or border between states or jurisdictions. They cited the example of a contractor who had used a UAV in a transboundary incident that led to operations being halted and the UAV confiscated.

Another important issue is conflicting use of airspace by drones, helicopters and other aircraft. Moreover, they said, not all UAV equipment is suitable for all spills. Direct visual observation of oil spills has been preferred in the past, and meteorological conditions could hinder the use of UAVs if they are not equipped with suitable sensors.

What is needed, they said, is that guidelines be developed for use in spill response operations and that training programmes are developed drawing on experience. The guidelines should consider methods to maximise safety standards, tools for deciding the appropriateness and configuration of a UAV for the situation at hand. Templates for flight plans and optimal operational parameters are also required. When guidelines are developed, they said, there would be a need to include UAV specialists, the regulatory agencies, the International Maritime Organization, oil spill response organisations and aviation authorities.

Norwegian partnership creates one-stop shop for spill response

Leasing oil spill response equipment has several potential advantages, say a group of Norwegian companies that are offering vessel owners a package of equipment.

Norwegian suppliers Framo, Maritime Partner, Norbit Aptomar and NorLense have come together to create an oil spill recovery vessel group to provide oil spill response solutions.

Speaking about the companies’ decision to collaborate, Framo’s area manager oil and gas pumping systems Jørgen Brandt Theodorsen said “Our aim is to be a one-stop shop where we pool our efforts and act as a total systems supplier of safe, highly functional and well tested technology.

Mr Theodorsen said the equipment offered by the companies has undergone thorough testing and quality assurance and draws on 40 years of oil spill response experience.

The oil spill recovery group is offering a package solution that covers everything a customer might need to respond to an oil spill, from detection and containment to recovery. The companies are all long-established specialists in their fields.

NorLense’s sales manager Roy Arne Nilsen said one of the biggest advantages of the formation of the group is that a customer only has to deal with one of the partners to get access to a complete oil spill response system. “Leasing is beneficial because it doesn’t have a significant impact on a customer’s liquidity. In the current market, managing cash flow can often be a challenge. Leasing allows for vessels to be converted for new roles without the same level of investment that would be required if a vessel owner had to buy the equipment,” Mr Nilsen said.

The companies, which are well known players in the Norwegian maritime cluster, are all specialists in their fields. Norbit Aptomar’s radar and infrared cameras can be used to identify the location of an oil spill and produce an overview of it. Maritime Partner’s high-speed vessels are well suited to pulling equipment such as booms into place. Oil would be contained with booms from NorLense and recovered onto a vessel with a Framo TransRec oil skimmer.

“Oil spill response is a complex operation,” said Aptomar’s sales and marketing director Lars Solberg. “We can offer customers a turnkey solution that provides them with access to emergency preparedness expertise without them having to acquire it themselves. With our packaged solution, any supply vessel can easily be upgraded and used as part of the response to an offshore oil spill. The package of equipment that we are offering means that an owner can easily convert an existing vessel to offer new services to an oil company.”

Sensor combination will seek out offshore oil spills

Two Norwegian companies not connected with the new oil spill response group who also have expertise in sensor technology are to work together to enhance oil spill detection.

Miros and Ocean Visuals are to collaborate to combine remote sensors for oil spill detection and verification. The companies are co-operating to provide customers with a set of complementary detection and verification sensors, addressing all aspects of surveillance, detection and verification.

Miros is well known for its radar and infrared-based surveillance and detection systems, which can detect and track oil spills over a large area.

Ocean Visuals has pioneered the use of hyperspectral laser-induced fluorescence (HLIF)-based light detection and ranging (LiDAR). HLIF LiDAR provides high-resolution point measurements for detection and verification.

The Norwegian companies plan to use remote sensing and combinations of different sensors that can be easily mounted on oil spill vessels and topsides.

Miros chief executive Andreas Brekke said “The real novelty of our co-operation is being able to solve a wider range of our customers’ operational challenges. We can offer detection capabilities at all relevant distances and across a wider range of operating scenarios, with unprecedented automated verification capabilities”.

Ocean Visuals chief executive Christian Testman said “We are excited to co-operate with Miros and support their already large client base. This is an important first step towards true sensor fusion in oil spill detection.”

Lamor acquires Meritaito spill response equipment

Lamor Corporation has reached agreement with fellow Finnish company Meritaito to acquire Meritaito’s oil spill response equipment marketed under the brand name SeaHow.

Lamor Corporation’s president and chief executive Fred Larsen said “We have worked well together in the oil spill response field, and this acquisition will strengthen and open up further new possibilities. Through this acquisition, we strengthen our product portfolio in terms of shallow-water oil spill response. Meritaito’s products are of high quality and have excellent customer references. Through Lamor’s sales network, these products can now be introduced into international markets.”

Meritaito’s chief executive Hannu Ylärinne said “Our new-generation oil recovery equipment has demonstrated functionality in extremely challenging environmental conditions. The equipment supports Lamor’s product range very well.”

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