A treasure TROV

Elaine Maslin

November 1, 2015

Jim McFarlane introduced ROVs to the North Sea industry in the 1970s and went on to pioneer AUV development. Elaine Maslin learned more from the still active industry veteran.

Jim McFarlane Photos from International Submarine Engineering.

Jim McFarlane’s history in the subsea industry is one few can match – his company introduced the first remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in to the North Sea. The industry veteran still arrives earlier than most in the office in the morning and is often flying internationally on business, despite marking his 80th birthday last year.

Complete with navy experience and technical degrees, McFarlane is one of a few who were mad enough, as he would say, to get involved in putting robotics into the sea, pioneering a new industry that we now, for the most part, take for granted – i.e. ROVs and increasingly autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). McFarlane played a leading role pioneering the former and has gone on to do the same with the latter.

Born in Canada in 1934, McFarlane grew up during the war years, then spent 18 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, where he rose through the ranks, before being head hunted for Hyco International Hydrodynamics, then setting up International Submarine Engineering in 1974.

During his time in the Canadian Armed Forces he was lucky enough to be put through multiple universities, gaining a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and then masters’ in naval engineering, naval architecture, and marine engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

With his skills and expertise, including overseeing the build of submarines for Canada at Chatham Dockyards, he was headhunted to work for Hyco, based out of Vancouver, which had become a hub for underwater exploration in the 1960s. Back then, a trio of divers had decided to build a manned submersible – what became the Pisces vehicle. “That was the seminal point,” McFarlane says. The vehicles became work horses for the industry, and were the start of a new technology hub on the northwest coast, and a new globally used tool. They were bought by the pioneering Sir Leonard Redshaw for Vickers Oceanics, in the UK, who helped usher in the new era of subsea robotics in the North Sea.

 ISE’s TROV ROV – one of the first in the industry.

But, while they became established tools, the life of manned submersibles was not to be long-lived. McFarlane, who was involved in the well-known 1974 rescue of two men stranded in Vickers’ Pisces III at 480m water depth offshore Ireland – a rescue heavily involving the Canadian navy – “had a flash, and started to build a tethered vehicle.” He had been involved in the development of the Pisces IV and V, but saw an opportunity for something new.

After setting up ISE in 1974, aged 40, he had built a tethered ROV prototype. By 1975 it was complete and in 1976 it performed its first job monitoring rock dumping on the Piper Alpha line in the North Sea. It was the first ROV in the North Sea – in the world. These new vehicles “kicked the pants off manned submersibles,” McFarlane says.

But, while McFarlane introduced ROVs to the North Sea, it wouldn’t become a strong market, due to pressure to use local content by the new disbanded Offshore Supplies Office in Glasgow, over a 10-year period in the 1980s, McFarlane says. But, that didn’t stop him going elsewhere, including the US Gulf of Mexico, which, having first been cool to the idea, was now keen. He also moved into newer technologies, developing AUVs, including a 40ft-long AUV with a 200mi range used in the 1990s to lay a 108mi-long monitoring cable into the arctic – autonomously, with the vehicle finding its own way back to the hole in the ice from which it was deployed – and other markets.

The business, up to 2013, had built more than 230 ROVs and AUVs and more than 400 manipulators.