Since the 1980’s ROV’s have become an increasingly staple asset to the Oil and Gas Sector, providing a safe way to remotely inspect, maintain and replace critical underwater assets.
As the energy sector shifts its focus more and more into deep-sea drilling projects in search of new opportunities, innovation across the ROV industry is being driven at an unprecedented rate. The latest models are equipped with highly advanced robotics and are armed with a wide variety of different sensors and instruments, able to collect data on anything from the temperature of the water, to the health of marine ecosystems!
An area of particular progress over the recent years has been in the area of robotic arms, with the latest models coming with seven different internal joints, to closely mimic the seven joints within the human arm. This allows for a far greater range of movements as well as greater dexterity, which in turn allows ROV pilots to successfully complete far more complicated tasks.
However, whilst the range of movements available within these robotic arms is important, equally significant is the sensitivity, giving ROV pilots a greater degree of understanding about what it is the arm is touching. One incredible development is ‘forced feedback’, a technological development that allows ROV pilots to physically feel things such as force resistance or ocean movement that the robotic arm or attachment is experiencing, as if it were an extension of their own body.
Advances in this technology have even lead to the ROV pilot being able to control the exact level of force that the robotic arm is exerting on an object, meaning these machines could pick up an egg without causing it to crack, or smash through thick concrete, all depending on the force the operator applies.
IT and Communication
Manoeuvrable and dexterous robotic arms are not the only key area of advancement in the field of ROV’s. Major developments have been taken in the area of communication, meaning that ROV’s can transmit high-quality video footage in real time, across a far greater distance than previously possible.
In a further attempt to reduce the margin for fault and ensure that safety is at the highest possible level, ROV’s can now be programmed to interpret CAD drawings of projects, enabling them to navigate themselves, thus reducing the occurrence of human error.
Perhaps the most important of all, data collection – a task that ROV’s excel at – has seen tremendous leaps in innovation in recent times. As project sites have become both more expansive, as well as being situated deeper in the ocean, they play host to more and more sensors, that monitor and produce reports on conditions such as production, asset health, as well as detection of potential irregular or abnormal situation.
With a single production field potentially having more than 40 underwater assets, and each of these individual assets having between 5-15 sensors mounted on them. With this sort of traditional sensors, offshore operators would be required to periodically lift these lines and manifolds in order to conduct maintenance. This would create a significant cost for the operator, due to both the
production of the asset being shut off, and the substantial cost of raising the asset to the surface, as well as the actual cost of repairs itself.
Instead of this, ROV’s can be fitted with sensor retrieval systems, which allows for both reading and maintaining these sensors to be done remotely, via the use of an ROV, providing both a time-efficient and cost-effective solution.
A significant limitation on the effectiveness of ROVs has always been due to the fact that they are tethered by an umbilical cord, which in some cases can prove to be extremely thick and cumbersome, as well as providing a very concrete limit on their effective range.
Whilst batteries can provide a workable alternative to this, with advances both in weight and performance, a promising new area with serious implications for sustainability of power for ROVs is the study of underwater motion. This could enable ROV’s to create their own supply of power by moving on a dolphin like trajectory, thus removing the need for an external power supply all together.
Other applications of ROVs
Whilst ROVs are still a critical feature of the Oil and Gas sector, and will be for decades to come, there are other areas in which the use of ROVs can add significant value to a project.
A booming sector where ROVs can add value and make life both safer and more efficient for operators is renewables. The most recent trend in this sector is the installation of offshore windfarms. These windfarms are obviously a long-term investment and as such require frequent repair and maintenance, creating a new field of application for ROVs. Additionally, due to the environmental challenges such as high currents and low visibility, using ROVs instead of divers provides not only a reduction to operational cost, but also an increase in safety. Many of the advancements covered in this article already add to the high level of service that an ROV can provide.
The importance of carrying out inspection on underwater assets isn’t uniquely valuable just to the Oil and Gas sector, any industrial facility or project that involves submerged assets is likely to benefit from an ROV.
For example, in many countries regularly effected badly by drought, such as Australia, where the government has invested in desalination facilities and infrastructure in order to try to mitigate the effects of droughts. The challenge with these installations is the monitoring and maintaining an extensive and extremely narrow network of pipes that is far too dangerous for divers to attempt.
The use of micro-ROVs in this particular example highlights the advantages that smaller, lightweight but efficient and high quality ROVs can bring to an industrial project.
As the Oil and Gas sector drills ever deeper into the depths of the ocean in search of new prospects, it is expected that the ROV industry will continue to see innovation to continue to be able to meet those requirements.
With recent advances in the realms of artificial intelligence and machine vision technology, it is predicted that ROV’s will become more and more sophisticated, improving work-flow and increasing safety.