Ocean Infinity, which is developing a fleet of unmanned surface vessels (USVs) called Armada to conduct surveys for the offshore industry, is set to test its first vessel and undertake initial projects by end of 2020. And even as it builds its first unit, it is considering other potential applications for robotic vessels, including offshore logistics
Armada was set up by the marine robotics company to target growing demand for unmanned surface vessels (USVs) for the offshore wind and offshore oil and gas industries. It will have its first USV in the water, ready for tests and to undertake initial projects, in late 2020.
Armada managing director Dan Hook told OWJ that the company’s first USV, a 21-m unit, is currently being assembled at a shipyard in Norway, and more are set to follow.
Mr Hook said the design of Armada’s new range of USVs is “customer driven” and there is significant “customer pull” from clients in the offshore wind and offshore oil and gas industries who are attracted by the economics of USVs and by their ability to help decarbonise offshore operations.
Mr Hook said companies’ desire to decarbonise operations is especially evident in the offshore wind space.
“The advantages of USVs are already well understood in the industry,” said Mr Hook, “but what is becoming increasingly apparent is just how significant the savings are by eliminating the need for personnel offshore.
“Apart from better fuel consumption than a manned vessel, with no crew onboard, you eliminate many other energy users that add to a manned vessel’s emissions. Without personnel at sea, there is no need for all of the ancillary services like galleys, heating, and many other contributors to the hotel load of a manned vessel. Clients understand that USVs are less expensive to operate, but they also now appreciate how much more environmentally friendly they can be.”
Armada announced plans to build a number of USVs in February 2020. In an exclusive interview with OWJ, Mr Hook said the company has committed to building two classes of aluminium-hulled USVs – the 21-m unit and a 36-m USV – and has designs for a significantly larger unit of in excess of 60 m.
The first 36-m unit is due to be available in June 2021, ready for the summer season and all 15 USVs that it currently plans to build – including some built in the US – should be completed by the end of 2022.
The 60-m plus USV will have a similar level of capability and is intended for work in deeper water, further from shore. The USVs will have a transit speed of in excess of 10 knots and endurance of up to two weeks.
The USVs are also designed to be at least as capable – and potentially more capable – in any given sea state as a manned vessel. “Apart from reducing the cost of surveys and making offshore operations more environmentally friendly, one of our key goals has always been to increase the weather window for survey operations compared to manned vessels,” Mr Hook said.
The USVs will have diesel-electric propulsion and batteries but could one day be fitted with fuel cells or another form of electric propulsion. In transit mode, the USVs could use combined diesel-electric and battery mode. At other times they could use energy in their batteries for ‘peak shaving.’ The 36-m unit could have greater battery capacity than the initial 21-m unit, Mr Hook said.
In due course, Mr Hook explained, Armada also sees significant potential for using the USVs for offshore logistics, to resupply offshore platforms and, potentially, play a significant role in operations and maintenance for offshore windfarms.
Although the first unit is being built in Norway, in recognition of interest in using USVs in the US offshore wind industry, Armada plans to build them there too.
Like other USVs due to enter service later this year, the Armada USVs will be capable of conducting geophysical and hydrographic surveys but will also be able to deploy ROVs and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). The 36-m unit will be able to deploy two work-class ROVs. The company recently awarded a contract to Kongsberg to develop a launch and recovery system for underwater units deployed from the USVs.
The LARs will use an electric drive system, making it more environmentally sustainable and significantly reducing the need for maintenance. It will launch and recover ROVs and AUVs through a moonpool on the USV, with the release and capture of the ROV occurring beneath the sea surface. This eliminates the possibility of damage to the ROV from impact with the vessel hull. Another benefit is that launching and recovery can be carried out in higher sea states.
The USVs will be controlled via satellite communications but will also be able to make use of other communications networks, when available. The company has identified the site for its first control centre, Southampton in the UK, and plans to establish another in Austin, Texas.
Armada has engaged with the UK Maritime & Coast Guard Agency and with other agencies in Europe and Scandinavia to develop regulations for the operation of USVs that are equivalent to those for manned vessels, and is actively recruiting qualified marine personnel to work in its control centres. It is also working closely with classification societies for class approval for its designs.