Sea change

Elaine Maslin

October 1, 2015

Despite rapid progress in the 1980s and 1990s, ROV technology development has ground to a halt, according to some. Are we on the brink of a new era? Elaine Maslin reports.

A UHD generation III during offshore deployment. Photo from FMC Technologies Schilling Robotics.

In the early 1970s, a new technology was brought to the offshore oil and gas industry – remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

Initially unreliable, clumsy and of limited use, they were soon able to carry relatively complex tools, with more versatile manipulators and, by the late 1980s, they had gained industry acceptance – subsea systems were being developed specifically for ROV intervention.

Today, they carry an array of sensors, cameras and tools into the depths of the oceans in order to perform subsea exploration work and work on subsea infrastructure and production systems.

In August 2014, there were some 720 of them, with 561 of those being Class III, or work class, according to the International Marine Contractors Association.

Yet, for some, these subsea worker bees haven’t quite developed technologically as fast they could, at least not since the late 1990s and they are due a technological growth spurt.


Tyler Schilling with an FMC Technologies Schilling Robotics employee and a UHD ROV. Photo from FMC Technologies Schilling Robotics. 

According to Tyler Schilling, a co-founder of what is now FMC Technologies Schilling Robotics, today’s ROVs are clumsy. “I think, despite the fact I have been doing this for 30 years, dedicating my entire working adult life to this technology, ROVs are extremely clumsy in their current form and they are going to enter a new era,” he says.

ROV engineer and consultant Doug Bathgate puts it another way: “There were great expectations and high hopes for ROVs in the 1980s – when I first became involved – and some advances in the 90s, but progress has ground to a halt since the millennium. The ROV and ROV tool market is still at the Morris Minor stage [compared to automotive development] and has to progress.”

To some extent, the technology is already out there, but it’s not being fully utilized, Bathgate suggests. He says today’s work class ROV typically has a five-function arm, a seven-function arm and an array of cameras. But, because 3D cameras are not routinely used they are effectively wearing an eyepatch, limiting depth of field vision, and the vehicle has limited movement in one of its arms.

“If you asked that ROV to change a light bulb it couldn’t hold the unit to twist the bulb as one arm would have to be used to hold on while it was up the ladder,” he says. What’s more, the “modern” ROV seldom carries multiple tools and does not have a multi-tool hand, which limits its ability to multi-task.

Even smaller ROVs could have a better standard equipment package – instead of, as happened recently, as gas collector having to be duct tape and jubilee clipped to an inspection and observation class ROV during a gas leak inspection, Bathgate says.

Operators have also not had the drive to develop new tools, he says, because more money is to be made out of the day rates on the vessels deploying ROVs than specialized ROV tooling and with only a hand full of major players dominating the market, the competition is limited.

Brett (Gonzo) Eychner, head of ROV operator ROVOP’s Houston operations, worked with Oceaneering for 32 years before spending time doing consultancy work with FMC Technologies Schilling Robotics.

Commercial impediments

ROVOP deploys a Schilling ROV. Photo from ROVOP.

Eychner says it’s also how ROVs are valued that stops tooling being used or new technology being developed. “You can already put two, seven-degree manipulators on and as many 3D cameras as you want, it is just a matter of money, i.e. rates. But operators will specify lower specification units to lower rates, with their key metric focused on downtime.

ROV downtime has been a key focus for the industry for the past 20 years and the resulting improvements have been substantial. ROVs, once seen as highly unreliable, are now more reliable and maintenance regimes like FMC Technologies Schilling Robotic’s 60 minute philosophy for resolving issues on an operational ROV have also helped reduce downtime – when rig rates could be at stake.

But, focusing on downtime also means less focus on making sure the ROV can spend more time on task, by carrying multiple tooling, for example, Eychner says. “I want to see the industry change the way it views downtime. It is a definition the oil field has used and it can be manipulated and doesn’t show time on task. If the industry could look at time on task and the ability to be able to do a job more quickly, we might see a change, then you can go down with a higher technology specification and do the job more efficiently and it would be recognized.”

ROVOP deploys a Schilling ROV. Photo from ROVOP.

Schilling agrees. “The vast majority of the industry operates on a day rate commercial model, where you bid on how many dollars a day you are willing to provide the equipment and personnel and although almost all of the end customers say price isn’t their first consideration, mysteriously it somehow ends up coming back to that. You can have all kinds of fancy technology on your ROV, but you won’t get paid a dollar more a day because you have it. All that really exists is some penalty if the machine isn’t functioning properly – if it is broken.”

Schilling says he used to split customers into two categories – the break less and the work faster. “The break less were predominantly worried about never going on downtime, but they didn’t really have any commercial incentive to get things done quicker.” This camp stems from efforts to simplify what is a complex contracting environment and an effort to simplify one small part of that environment. But, it results in an aversion to the risk posed by trying new technologies.

“The work faster were contractors who weren’t based on day rate, but on completing the task, and of course if you want to work faster you also have to break less. But, the break less category has grown to become almost the entire market. So there is very little incentive for people to develop and deploy new technology in the market.”

Cautious operators

Brett (Gonzo) Eychner, head of ROV operator ROVOP’s Houston operations. Photo from ROVOP. 

Operators caution around trying new technology and going with what they know has also resulted in something of a one-company market for manipulators. Schilling Robotics’ manipulator became such a success that now few are willing to try out anything else.

Schilling himself says this is understandable, as the consequences of failure can be significant – particular when a rig is on day rate – but that in many cases failure is the result of bad execution and that one firm having such a dominant position isn’t that healthy for technology development in the market as a whole because competition is locked out.

Schilling Robotics’ complex seven-function manipulator has beaten out competition from the likes of Kraft Robotics and Perry Slingsby, each of which have built complex manipulators, some with force feedback, says Mark Bokenfohr, from Bergen-based pinless connector firm WiSub, who has worked in the ROV business for some time.

Schilling hasn’t always had such success. Its all-electric Quest and the “puck” user interface, for example, did not prove as successful as its manipulators and more recently the UHD ROV, which itself took Schilling Robotics’ willingness to offer operators whatever they want on the unit, Bokenfohr says.

In such cases as the “puck,” not considering the acceptance level of the user and not taking on too much in one go, were lessons learned.

On the up side

Mark Bokenfohr, co-founder of pinless connector firm WiSub. Photo from WiSub.

But it’s far from doom and gloom. “There have no doubt been advances in the ROV industry, which 20 years ago tolerated figures like 10% downtime on the ‘temperamental’ and highly complex ROV system,” Bokenfohr says. “The equipment has not become less complex, but the downtime due to equipment failure has been greatly reduced.”

Improvements have been made around manipulators, maintenance and operability, and even systems integration, where the primary ROV intervention tool is incorporated into the whole field design and operations, he says. Machine vision systems are also being developed, which could see the ROV operator (who is also the manipulator operator) become more like a “bus driver,” flying up to a panel, grabbing on and pressing the “go” button, then watching the arm take over and perform the intervention task by itself, Bokenfohr says. Firms like SeeByte have produced software systems that enable autotracking and auto-navigation, and intelligent positioning.

But there’s still room for improvement. Bokenfohr says there could be improved standardization, particularly around interfaces, such as around subsea power and data interface. “There are already some reasonably well-defined standards for mechanical interfaces, such as defined in ISO 13628-8 and its equivalent API standard,” he says. While some suggest standardization could stymie innovation and not be in the interest of equipment manufacturers, “there is no doubt that there is something to be gained from singing from the same song sheet,” he says. For example, manufacturers including International Submarine Engineering (ISE), in Vancouver, and KystDesign, in Norway, have specified items that can be sourced from more than one supplier, such as common hydraulic pumps and electrical components, Bokenfohr says. “However, others argue their customized equipment is optimized for serviceability or ease of maintenance, product life and performance. Yet, lack of cross-compatibility of tooling or equipment drives up support costs for ROV systems. Who is right? I don’t think that the market has yet decided.”

Finally, to effectively deploy ROVs, training is also key – at least until the ROVs of the future, which can perform more functions automatically, are adopted by the market. ROV operators are currently trained to be flyers and fixers and manipulator training remains “on the job,” Bathgate says, “at great expense to the client.”

Internet based training, flying a virtual vehicle via a remote monitor, with a cheap but functional manipulator remote means they could train from anywhere in the world. Standardization in the training space would also be beneficial, Bokenfohr says.

In today’s climate, the future development of ROVs, and how long it takes to adopt the new technologies, remains to be seen. The question is, Bokenfohr asks, will the next advances be driven by speculation or support from operators who can see the potential?