Underwater autonomy

Ben Wilby, Douglas-Westwood

October 1, 2016

There’s potential for growth in the AUV market. However, operators and manufacturers will need to clearly demonstrate the benefits of the technology if they’re to move beyond being a niche solution. Douglas-Westwood’s Ben Wilby explains.

BG Group's FlatFish is one of a number of resident AUV concepts being developed. Image from BG Group (now part of Shell).

The autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) sector has evolved from an emerging technology with niche uses, to a viable solution and an established part of operations in various marine sectors. A number of companies within the AUV sector have developed strong reputations as reliable providers of AUVs, but there is potential for further growth.

Douglas-Westwood’s (DW) new AUV Market Forecast 2016-2020 considers the prospective demand for AUVs in the commercial, military and research sectors over the next five years. DW sees demand for units continuing to grow over the forecast period, with demand in 2020 expected to be 49% higher than in 2016.

This will be driven by continued high levels of military and research activity as well as consistent growth from the commercial sector. The prospects for growth in the use of AUV technology in the commercial sector are good – as a comparatively underutilized and developing technology, it will likely take time for the sector to fully mature. Yet, with growing acceptance from operators and a strong focus on research and development, demand for AUVs is forecast to increase for the foreseeable future.

Emerging technologies

In the commercial sector, the future of AUVs is intrinsically linked with further technological advancements – the technology has yet to reach a level where oil and gas operators consider AUVs a vital aspect of operations.

AUVs have a number of limitations that are hindering uptake in the commercial sector, these include: battery life, autonomy and manipulation ability. Currently, AUVs average under 24 hours’ battery life and this is significantly reduced if the unit is required to work in deepwater – thrusters are one of the largest drains on power. Consequently, current research is focused on improving battery life, either through improvements to existing technology or the introduction of new battery types. Many of these battery types are still conceptual and are likely to be a number of years from commercial availability.

Full autonomy is also an important target, many in the industry have told us that units are, “not as autonomous as we perceive them to be.” Much of this is linked to battery life – with units requiring regular intervention for power purposes – however, it also relates to the current limits of programming and artificial intelligence.

At a commercial level, improved manipulation ability will arguably be the most important factor for increased uptake of AUVs. Units currently have limited ability to manipulate equipment once they are underwater, limiting their use to inspections and surveys.

This is a major difference between AUVs and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) – the latter can be fitted with arms that can be controlled manually. There are a number of projects focused on improving manipulation ability, including Eelume, a Norwegian university spin-out that has developed a swimming robot concept. This AUV utilizes a snake-like design to allow for better maneuverability and will be capable of adjusting the valves and chokes on subsea trees. A collaboration agreement with Statoil and Kongsberg to further develop the concept was signed in April 2016.

Eelume’s AUV design does not require the unit to resurface in order to be charged. This can take place on the seabed with the unit sending data up to the surface while charging. This solution improves a number of issues – increasing autonomy and removing many of the concerns over battery life. The development of “resident” AUV installations will be integral to growth of the technology for oil and gas operations.

Future developments could see subsea bases for AUVs that are based around a series of marginal fields – dramatically increasing the value proposition. Subsea 7 is one of a number of companies that already have “subsea resident” AUVs in development.

Market forecast

Subsea 7's AIV concept. Image from Subsea 7.

The market demand for AUVs is expected to increase over the forecast at CAGR 10%, with every sector seeing positive growth due to increased utilization of the technology. The military is expected to remain the greatest user of AUVs with demand in 2020 for over 700 units – 73% of total demand. AUVs have a range of uses in the military including: anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasures, oceanography, search and rescue as well as special operations.

Using AUVs for these tasks reduces costs and limits risk to military personnel. In recent years, military investment in research and development has been reduced, with only specialized projects receiving funding. This is primarily due to the widespread availability of commercial off the shelf (COTS) AUVs from a range of different companies – this was not the case 10 years ago. Specialized projects and unique AUVs are still being sanctioned and built. A key example is Boeing’s new Echo Voyager, a 51ft AUV capable of staying underwater for over three months at a time.

The greatest growth in AUV usage is expected in the commercial sector –predominately from oil and gas operators. This will be a key market for the technology –despite the volatility of oil prices – as operators begin to understand the cost saving potential of AUVs. Consequently, the next few years are expected to be vitally important for AUV manufacturers and operators – both need to capitalize on increased interest before higher prices potentially lead to a return to the norm. However, low oil prices have reduced budgets and stymied investment in new technology, presenting a barrier to growth. Therefore, the onus will be on AUV manufacturers and operators to highlight the benefits of the technology.

DW expects demand for AUVs from the commercial sector to grow at a CAGR of 20%, with demand in 2020 105% higher than 2016. Over the forecast, commercial demand will represent only 4% of the total, highlighting that the technology remains a niche solution within the industry.

Source: Douglas Westwood, World AUV Market Forecast 2016-2020.

Despite accounting for the second largest portion of demand, the research sector will grow at a slower rate than the other two sectors. Research institutions typically utilize AUVs for a range of applications and have built units as research/engineering projects in their own right, or as a development test bed for new sensors, as well as to gather field data to support research efforts. Many institutions now purchase COTS AUVs rather than build them, however, there is often a great deal of integration work required in order for the AUV to meet project requirements. With the rise of modular, easy to change and open source platforms, this is likely to become less of an issue within the sector.

DW expects demand in 2020 to be 14% higher than in 2016, rising at CAGR 3%. Research institutions typically do not require high numbers of AUVs and usually prefer to modify existing units where possible.

AUV technology was first developed in robotics departments within US universities –often in collaboration with the US military. Consequently, North America remains the largest market for AUV demand, accounting for 61% of total demand over the forecast. The uptake rate in other regions has been slower. However, we expect to see some demand in every region. Western Europe is the second largest market, accounting for 19% of total demand – largely originating from the military sector.

Gliders are an extremely well established aspect of the market and are typically used for oceanographic sensing and supporting military and scientific research. We forecast gliders based on additional yearly supply and expect consistent growth to 2020. In 2016 we expect to see 168 additional units utilized, growing to 326 units by 2020. The vast majority of these units will be based in North America – representing 70% of total supply over the forecast.

Conclusion

AUV technology is still maturing and research and development spend remains high in universities, research institutions and from commercial operators. AUV demand is expected to increase substantially over the forecast, with demand in 2020 expected to be 49% higher than in 2016 – growing at CAGR 10%. The AUV sector is one of great promise, the technology has been widely accepted by the military and is seen as a vital tool in a number of research areas, yet uptake in the commercial sector remains limited.

With technological improvements and new designs regularly coming to market, strong growth in the sector is expected. However, operators and manufacturers will need to clearly demonstrate the benefits of the technology if AUVs are to move beyond a niche solution in commercial environments.


Ben Wilby
is an analyst at Douglas-Westwood and the author of the North Sea Decommissioning Market Forecast. In addition, he has authored Douglas-Westwood’s’Subsea Hardware, FLNG and FPS reports. He holds a BA in history from the University of Chichester.