Wonders of the deep

Elaine Maslin

March 1, 2016

Vidar Fondevik’s career has spanned challenging the limits of diving to developing remote operated systems. He reflected on his career with Elaine Maslin.

Vidar Fondevik, top left, receiving his SUT Fellowship. Photos from Vidar Fondevik.

Vidar Fondvik’s career has spanned a fascinating, pioneering era in the subsea industry, from developing the early robotic subsea systems to pushing the boundaries in scientific diving research.

It’s an industry easy to be fascinated by, not least in Norway’s often forgiving waters. It was here, for example, that the submarine Nautilus was scuttled in a fjord near Bergen after a failed attempt to cross under the North Pole.

“It’s not Jules Verne [who wrote about the fictional submarine Nautilus], but it was a big expedition,” Fondevik says. “It was just before the [Second] World War, 1931, and then they had to sink it in Norway because the Americans didn’t want it to be taken by the Germans.”

Finding it, in 350m water depth, some 40 years later, became a mission for Fondevik. The mission was achieved, thanks partly to managing to get a photo of where it where scuttled, but also due to using a specially developed sonar system to find it and then developing one of the industry’s first remotely operated vehicles, MAX. It is a story of the Norwegian subsea industry – finding problems and developing solutions – and also a theme close to Fondevik throughout his career.

Fondevik holds an MSc in Underwater Technology and Subsea Engineering from Heriot-Watt University, Scotland, and has bachelor degrees in Naval Architecture and Business Economics.

Check Mate, which today resides in Stavanger’s Norwegian Petroleum Museum.

His underwater career started in 1969, as combat diver in the Navy. He went on to serve as a diving surveyor for DNV in the oil and gas industry and then moved into experimental diving at Norway’s NUTEC, and the development of submarine manipulators and tools. He became pilot and manager for the acrylic submarine Check Mate, now displayed at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum, and went on to be general manager for a local company producing hydrophones for military submarines, and a board member for both the Underwater Technology Foundation and the Society of Underwater Technology Norwegian branches.

In the early years, the industry in Norway had wanted to get rid of manned subs and they didn’t want men in the water, Fondevik says. “The goal was, by 2000, to totally get rid of the diver. It was never managed. Often they planned fields for ROV operation, but didn’t manage to do it with ROVs and so brought the diver back in. Very often that was the case. And it became too expensive to do it. It often took longer with an ROV and it was just much simpler to do with divers, especially when it came to welding.”

While replacing the diver wasn’t quite fully achieved, many achievements were made in underwater technology, including developing manipulator systems and master controllers, the subject of a 1982 conference paper Fondevik presented at the Underwater Technology Conference thanks to his involvement in it.

But it was projects like Skuld, on the Elf, North East Frigg project offshore Norway, that really helped propel Norway’s subsea industry, Fondevik says. “It was the first modular-based, remote controlled production system. Skuld was a test project. It was a full scale test station to test the reliability of the remote control system. They got 20 years of production from that system. It was a very important project.”

The industry also continued to push the boundaries of diving. “We did lot of experimental diving in the 1980s, trying to push the limits further and further, diving down to 500-600m,” Fondevik says. The world record was won by Comex at 701m. Yet, for safety, today, the usual depth limit on the Norwegian Shelf is 180m for diving. In the UK it is 225m and in Brazil, around 300m.

ROVs are also more sophisticated and, as a result of moves into deeper waters, are often the only option. “They know what the ROVs can do and they know what the diver can do and they know the costs,” Fondevik says. “They also know the limits of developing a system at 2000m – you have to do it remote. But, if a field is 150m deep, like Johan Sverdrup, divers are an option.”

Fondevik will retire 1 March this year, having recently been made a Fellow of the SUT.