Underwater intelligence

Matt Bates

March 27, 2014

The blend of iCON technology and 11 thrusters in the small footprint Leopard, illustrates how intelligent architecture is advancing underwater vehicle design to bring greater operational benefits to the market at a lower real cost.

Saab Seaeye's Matt Bates discusses the evolution of ROV and AUV intelligence.

Intelligent underwater vehicles are bringing new opportunities and savings to offshore operatos.

Behavior-based architecture means a vehicle can effectively think for itself. Such dynamic decision-making offers a greater range of possibilities for a vehicle to operate independently–on programmable missions, for instance–and if damaged, stay alive by re-allocating systems.

Important for operators is that intelligent architecture also means more equipment can be carried on a smaller vehicle, than would otherwise be the case.

But more kit needs more thruster power, and this combination needs intelligent architecture for best control of the system and to create a stable and maneuverable platform for working at remote tasks and coping with strong currents.

Yet, while operators welcome smarter technology that is able to handle more kit with more power, they still want a vehicle to stay inside a small footprint.

With components getting smaller and smarter, and such innovative design concepts emerging, the footprint challenge is being met. The design of the new Leopard is a case in point.

Fitted with 11 thrusters it is the most powerful ROV of its size in the world, yet can handle more tooling, cameras and survey equipment than any other ROV in its class.

Nevertheless, it still fits into the minimal deck footprint combination of a 20x8ft, single lift A-Frame and winch LARS, and a 20ft control cabin–for easy transport and rapid mobilization.

The emergence of intelligent architecture, embodied in developments like the iCON control system, across ROVs, AUVs and AUV/ROV Hybrids, is a key development in the industry and is introducing ever more innovative technological solutions.

Take the Hybrid for example, which combines the autonomous remote operation characteristics of an AUV with the work capability of an ROV. In this case, on-board intelligence allows programmable missions to be undertaken and will also let the vehicle adapt automatically in response to external influences.

In free-swimming mode, its 360° maneuverability means it can enter structures and undertake work tasks without fear of tether entanglement.

Being programmable, intelligent and maneuverable, a Hybrid can undertake a number of complex tasks. Asset integrity and environmental monitoring of oil and gas installations are some examples.

This is well-illustrated by a project developed by Eni Norge and Tecnomare, called Clean Sea (continuous longterm environmental and asset integrity monitoring at sea). The Clean Sea team sought to overcome the shortcomings of environmental monitoring and inspection of oil and gas infrastructures, typically restricted to an annual undertaking and involves supply vessels and various underwater systems.

They recognized that the industry is moving into more challenging development areas–possibly in remote, hostile or environmentally-sensitive places–where conventional methods may be unsafe or unsustainable.

For the task they picked the Sabertooth AUV/ROV Hybrid, not just for its 360° maneuverability and hovering characteristics– necessary to operate in the proximity of structures, while undertaking inspection and monitoring tasks–but that its intelligent open-interface architecture meant the Clean Sea team could fit interchangeable modules, which they call E-PODs.

The Sabertooth AUV/ROV Hybrid fitted with the iCON intelligent control system, with its behavior-based architecture, offers decision-making and self-diagnostic capabilities for long-range programmable or operator-controlled missions. Future possibilities also suggest it can be left in operation at remote locations for a year.

Each E-POD module is dedicated to a particular task that can include automatic water sampling, hydrocarbon leakage detection, chemical analysis, visual inspection and acoustic surveying.

The advantage of a modular concept is that a number of E-PODs can be readied for environmental monitoring during all phases of field development.

A selection of E-PODs can typically include: baseline monitoring before activity takes place; along with environmental impact monitoring during exploration and production; post-incident monitoring to record effects and environmental recovery; general spill and hydrocarbon leakage detection; also visual inspection of structures, manifolds and associated equipment.

The hybrid’s intelligence can modify a pre-programmed mission in real-time, so that in response to the detection of a leak it will autonomously pinpoint the leak by subsequent analysis of gas measurements and move towards the leak source and film it.

Standard environmental sensors can be fitted to include temperature, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, fluorescence for chlorophyll and organic matter, turbidity, dissolved methane, PAH, pH and ORP.

In future, the Clean Sea team see the potential for locating E-Pods on the seabed alongside the Sabertooth at a remote underwater docking station, where it will remain resident for a year ready to be deployed as needed.

This will give year-round access to locations normally inaccessible due to ice or exceptionally harsh weather, and offer safer monitoring in geographical regions prone to insecurity.

Such intelligent technology applied to ROVs, AUVs and Hybrids, and matched with miniaturization of systems and components, is opening up new opportunities, and making life easier for operators.

For instance the networked design of the iCON control system has refined the main electronics pod into an intelligent power distribution and data hub, and relocated the brains of the system into sensors and actuators. This provides greater information for the user and makes maintenance far simpler and quicker.

This innovation also avoids the need to partially dismantle the ROV to reach its electronic heart–and offers buildingblock simplicity for equipment changes, along with remote internet access for upgrades and support.

Through an intelligent control system, the pilot also gets clear and enhanced information while also independently managing each device on the vehicle, including auto redundancy, that will keep the ROV working even after suffering multiple equipment damages.

The benefit of intelligent control is that the continued evolution of smarter vehicles incorporating innovative and miniaturized technology is set to grow exponentially and will bring operators ever greater performance for less real cost.

Matt Bates is a director at Saab Seaeye, which he joined in 1993.

His primary responsibility is the overall management of the sales and marketing and after-sales support activities.

He previously held the position of engineering manager, during which time his achievements included the development of the Seaeye Tiger, Lynx, Panther Plus and Seaeye Falcon.

In 2002, he took over the position of Sales and Marketing Manager. In 2003, he became Managing Director of Seaeye Marine and in 2008, took on the role of Sales Director. Matt has an Matt has an Honours Degree in Engineering Systems.