Autonomous underwater vehicles have the potential to radically transform inspection, repair and maintenance (IRM) operations in the subsea environment. But is the sector ready for such a change?
For subsea operations, IRM services have traditionally relied on vessel-based, remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) or diver deployment to maintain the integrity of subsea production assets. The oil and gas industry is now at a pivotal point in its evolution and we are on the cusp of a transformation. Organisations across the sector face growing pressure to streamline their operations in order to enhance overall HSSE performance whilst still improving cost efficiency, reducing their carbon footprint and embracing the digitalisation evolution in the delivery of critical data. Autonomous, or semi-autonomous ‘pilot-in-the-loop’ vehicles, can potentially be the resident eyes and ears on the seabed, reducing the need for a field support vessel to execute all IRM activities.
What R&D is currently underway to realise the potential of subsea drones?
For almost 20 years, i-Tech Services has been actively developing its autonomous subsea inspection vehicle capability. Our current Autonomous Inspection Vehicle (AIV) system, is essentially a ‘close-approach’ hovering vehicle. Similar to a traditional ROV, but without a tether, the AIV can stop, perform its inspection task and then travel to and autonomously dock into a recovery basket. This current capability is an essential step in our roadmap towards field-wide IRM services. i-Tech Services recently delivered a Study report to a major Norwegian operator to investigate the concept of subsea intervention drones and their deployment as part of a future North Sea field development. Based on our track record in supplying ROV and intervention services and our knowledge of autonomy within subsea vehicles, we worked closely with this Norwegian operator to identify the technology gaps and approach required to deliver IRM field wide services enabled by the deployment of drones. The operator is now utilising findings from the Study with the aim of providing permanent subsea inspection and light intervention capability at all production locations in its North Sea field development.
How close is the industry to actually deploying these subsea drones?
While the study concluded that there were no technical barriers for a subsea hybrid vehicle to be ready for deployment by 2020, it did identify that certain elements of the development would need to be accelerated to deliver the full service within this timescale. This includes fitting additional power and communications within the subsea infrastructure, improving the structure and flexibility of the docking station, and ensuring onshore control centre networks are aligned to enable the most efficient use of the vehicles. These developments, changes and adaptations are not insurmountable, but they do require careful consideration to ensure the configurations comply with requirements.
What is the industry appetite for such a move from the conventional delivery and execution of IRM services to a more automated approach?
Autonomous systems allow the industry to carry out work safely and efficiently without the need for costly vessel intervention or putting people at risk offshore. We’ve already seen huge strides in the understanding and acceptance of autonomous equipment and vehicles to transform oil and gas operations. For instance, surface robots now perform routine, repetitive tasks and navigate around complex structures on offshore platforms. This provides personnel the time to focus their efforts on more pressing duties whilst also limiting their exposure to potentially hazardous situations offshore. A pilot study of this kind, initiated by a major operator, shows that the industry is taking such innovation seriously. For a sector considered conservative in its approach, this is a major step forward in our quest to deliver safer, sustainable and profitable subsea operations.