Worlds collide

Mark Smith, Staci Stephenson and Brent Fergurson, Oceaneering International

May 1, 2016

Mark Smith, Staci Stephenson and Brent Fergurson, of Oceaneering International, show how NASA’s neutral buoyancy lab is helping cut costs and cut risks involved in subsea initiatives.

Deployment of MIL 27 ROV at the NBL. Images from Oceaneering International.

As reflected in ongoing tests for a major deepwater riser repair project off West Africa, an underwater testing facility near Houston – once dedicated exclusively for space exploration training – has built a niche in the offshore sector, especially in advancing remotely operated vehicle (ROV)-conveyed subsea developments without the risks and costs of real-world subsea deployment.

The centerpiece of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), operated under the umbrella of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is the 40ft-deep (202ft long x 102ft wide) indoor pool, complete with a permanently installed Oceaneering International Millennium heavy work class ROV and operator control room. Since made commercially available to the offshore oil and gas industry, the test tank, which is configured to allow simultaneous NASA space suited dives and ROV operations, has hosted a myriad of cradle-to-grave technology and procedure evaluations. These have been from proof of concept, through design and developmental operations and hardware testing phases, to ultimate functional acceptance and systems integration testing (SIT).

Enclosed within a fully secured 79ft high and 72,000sq ft high bay near the Johnson Space Center, the environmentally controlled facility offers single-source capabilities, including two 20.5-ton overhead cranes, four 2-ton jib cranes, dive team support, on-site repair and light manufacturing, as well as hyperbaric and hypobaric chambers. In it, an array of maneuverable underwater video cameras, and VideoRay capture all diver and ROV operations with live streaming on a bank of high-definition monitors aligning the skybox-like observation rooms.

Until roughly five years ago, these state-of-the-art capabilities were rooted entirely in the US Space Program, particularly in testing and verification support for the installation and maintenance of the International Space Station (ISS). Owing to the strikingly similar physical and operational hazards of the space and subsea frontiers, the transition into offshore oil and gas represented a natural evolution, as illustrated in a number of completed and active projects.

From space to subsea

NBL aka “The Big Pool.” 

With the final assembly of the ISS and the concurrent retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA’s need for underwater testing reduced significantly, leaving a sizeable void of largely under utilized NBL capacity. Consequently, NASA exercised its authority under the National Aeronautics Space Act to enter into commercial partnerships, making the facility available to the oil and gas industry for complex testing, training and support functions, at a fraction of the cost of performing the same exercises in the often-fickle offshore environment.

While fully accessible and welcoming to commercial applications, most of the work at the NBL continues to support space exploration, specifically with respect to current and future maintenance operations for the space station. For instance, nearly all of the average 150 suited diving operations conducted yearly are in conjunction with ISS maintenance, astronaut candidate training, or other space-oriented projects. In addition, buoyancy and sea state model correlation have been performed at the NBL in support of NASA’s continuing development of the Orion spacecraft, envisioned to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, perhaps eventually to Mars. Furthermore, as the NBL is engineered to provide real-time mission support, should something go awry on the ISS, pertinent personnel can be “in the water” and performing remedial operation testing within 48 hours. The same rapid response capability is especially applicable to the offshore industry where platform system or component malfunctions, for example, can have severe HSE and economic ramifications.

Among the world’s largest under-cover bodies of water, the 6.2 million gal. pool is outfitted with full-sized mock-ups of the ISS, including a hydraulic working model of the space station robotic arm. Accordingly, the once-dedicated NBL is well-suited to accommodate underwater SIT of subsea equipment mock-ups, which also can be combined with animation. Experience has shown that SIT is particularly effective in tandem with animation, which together have identified reach and access issues and generally made operations more efficient and cost effective by eliminating or minimizing operational workarounds.

The SIT capabilities of the NBL are expected to be clearly demonstrated in 2016 when underwater testing begins on an Oceaneering designed mock-up riser as part of a West Africa repair project. The remediation initiative entails the repair of two marine gas lift risers that were damaged during original installation of the main hybrid riser tower. The deepwater repair will entail ROV-conveyed cutting out of the damaged sections, which will subsequently be replaced with new flexible risers from the cut end of the gas lift risers to the primary gas-lift manifold.

The impending SIT will be conducted to validate the functionality of some dozen application-specific tools developed by Oceaneering. During the estimated 14-day SIT, the NBL resident Millennium ROV and the replicated riser will be collectively engaged to test tool functionality, evaluate the ROV-tool interface and the ROV capacity to effectively complete the deepwater repair.

This project represents but one example of how the NBL is being used to support a divergent range of client investigations throughout the life cycle of a deepwater field, from greenfield development to ongoing support and continuing through to eventually decommissioning.

Deepwater foothold

Deployment of subsea hardware in support of system integration test.

Since 2008, the NBL has been engaged to support a number of projects connected to high-profile deep and ultra-deepwater fields, including the completion of functionality tests on a number of Oceaneering designed wellhead cutting tool options for a Gulf of Mexico (GOM) platform installed in more than 6000ft of water. Also in support of a deepwater GOM field, the NBL was used in the development of an American Petroleum Institute (API)-certified suite of subsea flange removal tools developed by Oceaneering. The NBL and the 220hp Millennium were used to support the factory acceptance testing and SIT of the subsea flange removal tools prior to their successful field application.

Not all NBL testing, however, is tied solely to ROV operation, as illustrated in an earlier study to develop a methodology to quickly inspect buoyancy can chains for manufacturing defects. To avoid open-sea failure of suspect buoyancy can chains, which comprise a series of massive interlocked links and ovals, saturation diving and atmospheric diving suit tests were performed at the NBL to compare the time and motion required of each to complete an inspection. With test results pegging saturation diving as the preferred method, the next step was developing hardware to hold the inspection tool and make it easy to attach and position on the chain links. The final hardware configuration, much of which was built at the in-house machine shop, was the outgrowth of 12 design-fabrication-test cycles carried out over six days.

Another example of taking a project from proof of concept to the design stage is the work performed for a major operator aimed at developing an underwater magnetometer for non-intrusive inspection of insulated steel pipe. During proof of concept, evaluations centered on a betatron radiography system, which is an electron accelerator that produces a high-energy directional X-ray beam using a varying magnetic field. While industrial use of betatron radiography technology has been well documented, its application in subsea environments had not previously been characterized.

Fluid sampling projects

Last year, the NBL was the focal point for two unrelated deepwater fluid sampling projects - one in support of a major GOM operator and another in conjunction with the public-private Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA).

In the former, ROV tank testing was performed for an integrated service provider under contract to a major operator to develop a retrievable subsea fluid sampling system. The objective of the NBL testing was to characterize the underwater behavior of a newly engineered and ROV-conveyed retrievable sampling skid as it was being remotely removed and installed into a corresponding receiving structure, both while connected and unconnected to a lift line. As part of the investigation, additional installation and operational testing was performed to demonstrate and verify adequate ROV reach and access.

At the conclusion of the ROV integration tests, the client’s established test procedures and objectives had been captured, including the behavioral characterization of the sampling system in the subsea environment.

Meanwhile, the NBL also played a critical role in a sweeping initiative RPSEA orchestrated as part of its ultra-deepwater program to enhance industry’s ability to reliably assess deepwater well production and well control conditions. As one of the subcontractors in the multi-faceted research and development program, Oceaneering first designed and fabricated a prototype inline subsea sampling tool to provide operators a means of accessing and retrieving well fluids at pressure and temperature for laboratory analysis. This project was followed by the engineering of a new wet sensor system designed to test the feasibility of installing and replacing a sensor into a live flowline using an ROV-mounted system.

The hardware-ROV integration testing was completed successfully at the NBL in late 2015.

Whether it be space or subsea, the NBL with its state of the art services is available to support the oil and gas industry’s underwater testing needs.


Mark Smith
has served as a senior engineer/project manager at Oceaneering since 2000, and is currently responsible for capturing and managing underwater testing projects conducted at the NBL. He holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of New Brunswick.


Staci Stephenson
has supported operations at the NBL since 1998, and is currently the dive operations manager, Oceaneering. She assures efficient and smooth operations in support of testing equipment, training of astronauts and performance of various commercial operations.


Brent Fergurson
is the commercial project manager, Oceaneering, and has supported operations, HSE and engineering services at the NBL since 1997. He is currently responsible for integration and project management functions of commercial projects. He holds a degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences from Texas A&M University and a Master of Science in systems engineering from the University of Houston.