Robots in disguise

April 1, 2016

Elaine Maslin speaks with Oceaneering about its latest underwater technologies and its thoughts on the future of the ROV and AUV industry.

The NEXXUS ROV working in the Gulf of Mexico off the Olympic Intervention IV vessel.  Photos from Oceaneering International. 

By pure numbers, Oceaneering International is the biggest player in the global offshore oil and gas market, with more than 300 remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

It’s looking to stay that way, developing automated, intelligent ROV operations and navigation systems, for an electrified subsea world where ROVs and autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) technology look set to merge.

In 2015, Oceaneering bought C&C Technologies, a leader in AUV technology, complete with its own control software, which can control and monitor missions. Oceaneering then went on to demonstrate remote piloting of one of its NEXXUS ROVs in the US Gulf of Mexico, from an onshore control room, via a satellite link to the Olympic Intervention IV vessel. Oceaneering was also able to do this using a command-based system involving automated steps, rather than “hands-on” control using a joystick.

Next month [May], the company will display one of two new electric work class ROVs, the eNovus, built for Statoil, under a long-term contract, at the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) in Houston, and a suite of electric tools is under development.

21st century ROV

Recent developments in machine vision technology, notably used by the Google car and in other areas in the automotive and other sectors, alongside real-time video processing software, have opened up opportunities for underwater robotics control – which remains notoriously hard despite advances in tooling and manipulators.

It might finally be time for the all-electric work class ROV (there are already established all-electric non work class ROVs) or even remotely operated autonomous vehicles (ROAV). Why? Deepwater exploration demands, which have resulted in heavier electric-hydraulic ROVs and umbilicals, combined with a desire to have a resident robotics for inspection and intervention, as well as moves into more sensitive environments, have created a need.


Oceaneering’s eNovus ROV. Photo from Oceaneering.

Oceaneering developed its first electric work class vehicle in 1999-2000: the E-Magnum, or eMag. One was deployed on the Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible drilling rig for nine successful years.

Now, under contract to Norwegian oil major, Statoil, Oceaneering developed the newest kid on the block, the eNovus, a version of the eMag. Two units were ordered, to work on Statoil’s two new Cat J rigs, due to be delivered this year and next. As well as offering a cleaner technology, for exploration in environmentally sensitive areas, electric vehicles are attractive because they are more efficient than hydraulic vehicles, says Kevin Kerins, senior vice president, underwater vehicle technologies, Oceaneering. “Electric to hydraulic is 50% efficient. Electric power to electric thruster is over 90% efficient,” he says. “The umbilical can be smaller or you can have more power for other things. An electric ROV can also be an extension cord for other electric power subsea; when you’re not flying, you can divert power to subsea pumps, dredgers, etc., because of the higher efficiency.”

He continues: “What the first eMag lacked, being an electric vehicle, was that it had a hybrid power pack for small tools, but it lacked electric tools. We are now developing a set of electric tools.” But, it will still have hybrid capability, for hydraulic intervention, if it’s needed.

However, it’s not just about electrifying the work class ROV. The future work class vehicle will be a merger between ROV and AUV technology, Kerins says.


Kevin Kerins

ROVs will become more like AUVs, in terms of their ability to behave autonomously. But, AUVs will also be more like ROVs in terms of functionality, he says.

Autonomous functionality means automating all the tasks the ROV does and allowing the ROV to perform the task using machine vision technology software, which communicates with the ROV’s thrusters to accurately position the ROV relative to subsea infrastructure. At the moment, this means procedures, from maneuvers to stabbing operations, have to be broken down into pre-programmed units the pilot can select, i.e. “move ahead 6in,” “grab hand hold on left,” “go back to the cage,” as performed on the NEXXUS ROV from the Olympic Intervention IV.

The future will be further autonomy, using intelligent navigation systems developed for AUVs for tasks such as pipeline tracking and being able to see – and react to – unexpected obstacles on a given route or task. Indeed, Oceaneering is working on obstacle avoidance. Oceaneering is also working on a vehicle that also can track pipelines visually, using technology similar to facial recognition technology, but recognizing an anode, debris, and even damage to the pipeline or leaks.

“We keep saying ROV and AUV and maybe we will always call them all ROV, but eventually we want to take out the “remotely operated” part,” says Jami Cheramie, director of technology and special projects, Oceaneering. “It will become a true autonomous vehicle, moving from the human being as supervisor, to the vehicle being truly autonomous. The reality will be a programmed one, with enough intelligence to do what is needed, from servicing a chemical line to just observation.”

Jamie Cheramie

Merging ROV and AUV technology could pave the way for concepts such as an ROAV – an ROV which travels between subsea clusters, behaving like an AUV during transit, and an ROV onsite. This could then pave the way for the Holy Grail – not requiring a support vessel.

To a large degree, the technology is in place to achieve this, Kerins says. The problems are access to infield power and communications, as well as battery technologies.

Chicken and egg

Power is a problem. On the battery yield front, prospects are improving, with the likes of Tesla developing electric cars, battery yield has improved some 60% in the last three years, Cheramie says.

But, to have a vehicle in the field, working autonomously, for weeks at a time, you are going to need local power supply power, Kerins says. “It could be provided through an existing subsea control umbilical or we could lay down our own an umbilical. We have researched the possibility of laying our own umbilical, 20-30mi out from an existing platform and at the end putting the ROV in a cage on the sea bed. Using a conventional tether at 3000ft-long, extending in any direction, you could cover 1mi diameter area.” Such a system could be also be used as a charging station for an AUV, but, if you want to see what the AUV is seeing in real time, and modify its mission, you still need an umbilical as acoustic data transmission that has limited bandwidth and the only viable alternative for larger through water bandwidth communication for the likes of video is light transmission, which is limited by the distance it can travel through water, Kerins says.

Kerins thinks having power and communication umbilicals in place would be cheaper long-term than vessel day rates. In fact, in the Gulf of Mexico there is already a fiber optic trunk line installed by BP where some 13 platforms and rigs tie into and still more could, he says. “All you then need is power, but you could tie back to one of those platforms or rigs, which have plenty of power.”

However, that means getting permission from the rig or platform operator as well as a contract. And until those agreements can be achieved, it’s hard to justify the cost of building on spec a resident system and the level of testing a fully autonomous work class ROV would require before being deployed for up to one year. In other words, it’s a chicken and egg situation.

A similar situation exists for the potential to have a small resident ROV installed on a BOP during deepwater drilling campaigns. “In 10,000ft water depth, it is a long trip down for an ROV to the BOP and if there is weather or loop currents, it may not be possible to launch the ROV,” Kerins says. “A resident ROV on the BOP acts as the eyes to see what is going on in real time. Add a simple paddle valve actuator and you can extend the capability.” It’s an idea that’s been around since the 1990s, but, operators weren’t keen and BOP designs are not ROV friendly enough to allow connection of such a system.

There are signs this could change, however. Kerins notes API 53, which says ROVs can be a secondary control for BOP functionality, such as supplying fluids for closing shear rams in under 45 seconds. “The precedent now exists for the ROV to do more,” Kerins says.

Fleet evolution

A Millenium ROV being launched. 

Oceaneering continues to expand its fleet. The company’s main ROVs are the Millennium and Magnum, both built with open software architecture to enable easy fast fleet upgrades. Oceaneering has also been developing the next generation eNovus, based on the E-Magnum, reconfigured to take on bigger packages, and driven by a 172kVA electric propulsion system, with a dedicated hydraulic circuit for traditional tools.

Replacing the Millennium would be the Evolution, a larger electric work class ROV. However, work slowed on the Evolution while the eNovus was being developed. Evolution would be a multipurpose, configurable work class vehicle, with a configurable bottom half able to be used for anything from hydrate remediation to other work packages.

However, with the ROV market in something of a slump, along with the rest of the industry, fewer new builds will come out this year, with focus on reconfiguring existing assets and delivering existing orders, Kerins says.

ROVs are not Oceaneering’s only robotics tricks, however. The company also has an entertainment arm, delivering theme park rides, is also working on a new IWOCS system, with built-in intelligence and “more like an ROV than what you would think an IWOCs system is,” Kerins hints. Oceaneering’s asset integrity team is also building sensors to monitor the subsea factory and subsea systems.

And, while there is convergence, in terms of ROV and AUV technologies, there will still be work class ROVs and inspection and survey AUVs on the market, doing their jobs. What will be created will be a new type of vehicle – a hybrid – joining the fleet, Cheramie says.

ROV market view

The short-term outlook for the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) market is set to look sluggish. The ROV market relies to a large extend on drilling operations, accounting for between 55% and 71% of global fleet utilization, depending on who you believe, with the majority of the rest related to offshore construction. 

With drilling operations taking a hit thanks to oil majors cutting their budgets across the board, as they seek to mitigate the US$30/bbl oil prices, work is not as easy to get as it was and there are more work class ROVs in the market than ever.

Work class ROV new buildings hit a high of nearly 154 in 2008, compared to 62 in 2005, according to Infield Systems’ Kieran O’Brien. While the newbuild rate fell in 2009-10, it rose again in 2011-2013, averaging 121 systems per year, with Oceaneering leading the pack, followed by Forum Energy Technologies and FMC Technologies Schilling Robotics. However, the rate plummeted in 2015.

For Oceaneering, ROV income dropped 32% year on year in 2015, on 24% less income, due to lower demand for drilling support services and an 11% reduction in average day rates. 

Total ROV days on hire dropped by nearly 14,500, or 15%, to about 83,800 days for the day, according the firm’s 2015 annual results. During 2016, some 16 new ROVs were put into service, 36 were retired, leaving 315 vehicles in the fleet. 

O’Brien predicts demand will remain sluggish into 2017, when it will plateau before a slow recovery later in the decade. 

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