Advancements in AI, sensors and batteries are enabling robots to perform complicated underwater functions, reducing the need for OSVs and cutting offshore costs
A paradigm shift is underway in underwater inspections, maintenance and repair and subsea operations, driven by a new generation of resident robots, empowered by artificial intelligence, fitted with an array of new sensors and powered by longer-lasting batteries. These high-tech denizens of the deep are disrupting the way subsea operations are conducted, reducing the need for OSVs, increasing productivity and efficiency in remote locations and cutting costs for international oil companies.
Set for commercialisation in Q4 2019, Saipem-Sonsub’s Hydrone-R underwater intervention drone was launched in the water in July to begin its endurance and qualification tests.
“The core technologies embedded on board Hydrone-R are at the forefront of the industry and they will certainly mark a step change into the Life of Field business,” says Saipem E&C Offshore Division COO Stefano Porcari. “Safety and operational efficiency will both dramatically benefit from Hydrone-R and the entire Hydrone Programme in the years to come.”
The Hydrone Programme, a key element of Saipem’s Technology Development Plan within subsea robotics, aims to promote the use of a fleet of next-generation drones and advanced ancillary equipment in subsea operations.
Under the programme, Hydrone-R will be the first of three underwater vehicles to be phased in across 2019 and 2020 by Saipem. The other resident robots, Hydrone-S and Hydrone-W, will make their commercial debut in 2020.
Fitted with a series of sensors and proprietary AI for unmanned navigation and autonomous anomaly detection on a wide range of subsea systems, Hydrone-R will be capable of performing light construction work and advanced inspections on subsea assets.
Saipem reports the Hydrone-R as a subsea resident drone can remain underwater for 12 months. In resident mode, Hydrone-R has wireless operability and can be connected to subsea infrastructures via through-water communication links. It can cover an area within a 10-km radius for inspections and interventions. An even larger distance can be covered via intermediate subsea docking stations for recharging, mission download or data upload, providing a flexible range of operations.
Hydrone-R can also operate more traditionally, launched subsea and then retrieved on the surface upon completion of its mission.
“Our extensive qualification test campaign has been thoroughly scrutinised by DNV GL and other reputable experts in order to attain a third-party qualification for subsea resident use by November 2019,” says Sonsub head Roberto Di Silvestro. “Having something that can intervene in an autonomous way will reduce vessel costs and the overall carbon footprint for sure, but it will also improve the uptime of a subsea asset thanks to the capability of the Hydrone-R to intervene faster and more efficiently.”
Untethered ‘freedom’ or remote piloting?
Oceaneering’s take on the resident robot is the hybrid remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Freedom, which it unveiled at this year’s OTC in Houston. Building on its E-ROV concept – a resident, battery-powered ROV for subsea work – Oceaneering designed Freedom to undertake autonomous missions in an untethered mode, or be remotely piloted from shore for long deployments.
Freedom is fitted with a forward and aft tool changer, aft camera and lights. It has a hydrodynamic shape, achieving speeds up to 6 knots, with a forward-looking high definition camera for infield inspection. For manoeuvrability, it has vectored thrusters and a 360-degree sensor array.
Freedom works out of a smart docking station on the seabed, which allows it to charge its batteries, as well as receive information and upload data to the surface buoy for transmission to the shore-based control centre. It can operate in tethered and autonomous tether-less modes, performing both AUV- and ROV-related tasks, including survey, inspection, torque tool operation and manipulator-related activities. Oceaneering envisions that Freedom will also be used for underwater inspection in lieu of drydocking (UWILD) operations.
Freedom’s capabilities have been enhanced with sensors from UK-based Valeport, which designs and manufactures instrumentation for the oceanographic, hydrometric and hydrographic markets. Working with Oceaneering’s engineers, Valeport’s ethernet-enabled Midas Bathypack sensors will provide precision sound velocity, conductivity, temperature, depth and altimeter data. Also incorporated in Freedom is Valeport’s environmental monitoring sensor, Hyperion Flurometer, to measure chlorophyll A and detect leaks or pollutants in the water.
The hybrid navigation systems for Freedom are being supplied by UK-based underwater technology provider Sonardyne Inc.
The two resident vehicle systems are to be fitted with the inertial navigation instrument Sprint-Nav, which combines a Sprint INS sensor, Syrinx 600 kHz doppler velocity log and a pressure sensor in a single unit.
“Tight integration of the separate sensors within Sprint-Nav, as well as the use of high-specification ring laser gyros, are behind the high performance our customers are seeing from these units,” says Sonardyne sales manager for survey and construction Char Franey.
“They are free from the calibration routines otherwise required and, because they also run on a unique dual engine algorithm, powering the INS and gyro compass, initialisation is fast and gaps in navigation are few and far between,” he says.
Snake-like robot for restricted spaces
Resident robot Eelume is a serpentine vessel able to ‘swim’ and navigate through tight spaces using built-in underwater thrusters.
Trondheim, Norway-based Eelume emerged as a start-up from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in 2015. The company was launched to pursue industrial subsea applications after a decade of research and collaboration into snake-like robots with SINTEF.
Eelume, built in co-operation with energy company Equinor and maritime technology provide Kongsberg Maritime, is designed to permanently reside underwater and carry out underwater intervention work which would normally require the mobilisation of an ROV.
Eelume will reside in an Equinor UID Docking Station on the seabed. It is able to outfit itself with grabber and torque tools among others, to perform IMR work in constricted spaces and ‘visually’ inspect subsea pipelines before returning to the docking station.
The vessel can be mobilised all-year round, regardless of weather conditions, providing a continuous IMR capability near subsea installations, reducing the need for OSVs.