Subsea Robotics: Making Science Fiction a Reality for Offshore Oil and Gas

The evolution of robots working offshore is an indication of the changing nature of offshore development. What is being talked about and displayed at the 2012 Offshore Technology Conference are workhorse machines required for an increasingly complex subsea world that are more flexible and able to operate with increasing autonomy.


Schilling Robotics is developing a pump for its remotely operated vehicles (ROV) that can quickly switch to handling different fluids, such as from glycol to seawater, without the need to change pumps, thereby saving time. Time is a precious commodity in a realm where operators are paying more than USD 1 million per day for equipment and labor.


In the future, ROVs will be joined by AUVs which stands for autonomous underwater vehicles, which are machines that navigate on their own while performing complex undersea inspection assignments. During a technical session, the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA) reported on the work that combines this next-generation working robot with the latest sonar and laser scanning equipment.


The new ROV pumping system under development at Schilling was described as “fluid agnostic” by Tyler Schilling, the founder and president of the company that was recently acquired by FMC Technologies. In other words, the underwater work vehicle vessel will be able to pump a wide range of fluids.


ROVs are often used for pumping jobs, such as injecting glycol to break up hydrate blockages. But getting one pump to efficiently handle multiple fluids is a challenge. “A lot of pumping technology depends on lubricity of fluids for part of their operations,” Schilling said.


The company’s system uses software to adjust the pump functions to quickly adjust among fluids with different properties. The pump, which it hopes will be ready in 2013, is being developed in-house. It is atypical in this small industry in which most new technology has been proven elsewhere. “The practice in the industry is to shop and glue it on,” Schilling said.


RPSEA has been fostering matches between companies with proven technology that can be useful offshore. For example, Lockheed Martin is equipping its AUV with state-of-the-art imaging equipment. The work is well suited for a device that is smarter than, but not as strong as, the average ROV.


The 10-foot-long device looks like a “fat” submarine from the outside. It has also been described as a “battery with fins and propellers on it,” said John Jacobson, senior program manager at Lockheed Martin. Electricity is used to propel the device that communicates by using an acoustic communication system when needed. It directs itself based on a program called “adaptive path planning.” However, its batteries cannot provide the power to perform the heavy lifting done by ROVs, which are powered from the surface.


Lockheed’s AUV was mated with a sonar scanning system and used to create a detailed map of an old Chevron platform in the Gulf of Mexico. It created the 3D image while the craft spiraled around the platform, which shows signs of age. The test concluded that it spotted all the platform’s anomalies, such as bent beams. The scanning took 40 minutes, a fraction of the time it would have taken using older technology. The deepwater test program was able complete all the tasks it had planned to do in six days instead of the planned three weeks, said Jacobson.


Other RPSEA-supported projects that apply new ways of creating 3D images, with data from scans imported into software commonly used for digital model making, are pushing a new generation of sonar and laser methods offering better and quicker imaging.
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Author: Stephen Rassenfoss