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Networked Systems Improve Ocean Operations

Networked Systems Improve Ocean Operations

A low-logistics UUV reduces operational costs, sometimes eliminating the vessel. Photo courtesy NCS Survey and BP Azerbaijani subsea performance unit.

The ocean environment has always challenged the strength of technology and the skills of sailors and seafarers. Today, most members of the ocean community face an additional challenge — ever more constrained budgets with increasing requirements. 

Research budgets are shrinking despite new concerns from climate change to ocean acidification. Civilian ocean agencies must guard against tsunamis and hurricanes, often with declining resources. Vessel operators face volatile fuel prices and a challenging labor market. Offshore industry must consider increased regulatory requirements, especially in new sectors such as ultra-deepwater and Arctic regions. Even the defense community must consider their investments carefully as they fulfill traditional roles and engage new missions from antipiracy to harbor security. 

In these situations, ocean operators must do more with less. Fortunately, unmanned maritime vehicles offer increased return on investment compared to more traditional vessel based techniques.


A low-logistics ROV improves the economics, and safety, of hull inspections. Photo courtesy Teledyne Benthos.

Today’s UMVs: A Stand-Alone Solution

Current UMVs significantly improve the economics of certain ocean operations. They are allowing ocean operators to stave off the impacts of declining budgets. The core UMV roles of survey, inspection and observation all reveal positive impacts on the cost and complexity of marine operations. Connectivity brings operations into labs and conference rooms to empower mission managers.

The first survey task UMVs conquered was deepwater surveys, especially in the oil and gas market. Unmanned underwater vehicles allowed deep surveys to be executed by a single vessel, rather than two. This was a tremendous savings, but the market demand proved modest and a handful of large, potent UUVs appear to have satiated the market. 

While the large/deep UUVs bring added value, they still require dedicated vessels and sizeable staffs. In the late 1990s, small unmanned surface vehicles first demonstrated the ability to collect high-quality survey data without the demand for sizeable support vessels. Today, compact, low-logistics UUVs provide big-vessel bang at a small-vessel buck. Using affordable small platforms, often vessels of opportunity, survey operators can now conduct seafloor surveys at depths up to 1,000 meters and count upon data quality equal to the larger more expensive systems. Modular architectures allow diverse payloads and rapid battery changes. Now one UUV can meet multiple missions and maximize operating time, and thus are a return on investment. 

Undersea inspection began with divers who were gradually replaced by ROVs. The ROV industry has a long history and has grown to significant size, with approximately 1,000 large work-class ROVs in service. More recently, small ROVs have matured rapidly and are significantly changing the economics of many missions. Available in many sizes, shapes and price ranges, these ROVs enable rapid and effective inspections of the seafloor and structures.

New sensors support applications such as leak detection and pipeline imaging. Improved autopilots and subsea positioning reduce the burden on operators. The significant increase in the number of micro-ROVs, deployed by police departments, universities and other fiscally constrained operators, is a testament to the economics of this class of UMV. Among other missions, inspection of ship hulls for security, ship husbandry or law enforcement is enabled by the new generation of capable but low-logistics ROVs. Autonomous inspection vehicles are being demonstrated in initial sea trials and promise to further change the economics of undersea inspection.

Ocean observing has traditionally relied on vessel-based measurements and moorings, which require significant logistic investments. But today, extended endurance UMVs and autonomous profiling floats offer broad area coverage, both spatial and temporal, at low costs. Using buoyancy, thermal or wave energy approaches, these new UMVs can remain at sea for months and years rather than hours and days. Traditionally, physical oceanography has been the focus of these platforms, due to available sensors and limited payload energy budgets. But today new biogeochemical sensors are being demonstrated on long-endurance platforms. 

While the low capital and operational costs of these tools is a clear benefit to the economics of ocean observation, there is another, subtle, effect to note. Academic or government programs often share data collected by these platforms freely and often online. With hundreds of gliders and thousands of floats deployed, there is a wide user base to advance new concepts and technologies. Together the sharing of data and wide user community make ocean observing UMVs highly leveraged investments.

Connectivity is a key element of UMV operations. Operators deploy UMVs for a purpose; awareness of progress toward that purpose is a key requirement. Timeliness of information is also important to survey, inspection and observation activities, even if complete data sets must await a physical return of the UMV. While wireless networks and satellite navigation have revolutionized life ashore, acoustic systems bring similar benefits to undersea operations. Empowered by advances in digital signal processing, venerable tones and pings have given way to broadband schemes. These systems offer reliable connections between many platforms and in some cases also provide positioning information. Wise application of acoustic systems increases productivity and reduces risk.

The predominant mode for subsea connectivity is point-to-point. Networks have been demonstrated but are not widely deployed. Technologies are mostly closed, with operators dependent on single sources or forced to own potentially redundant equipment. Subsea connectivity is having an impact, but it still evolving.

Better Than a Bag Phone but Not a Smartphone

It is clear that UMVs are indeed reshaping the economics of marine operations. But most operators are accruing only incremental benefits. All users are not benefitting from the full potential of the technologies available, which can be viewed through the lens of mobile phones. 

The current situation for UMVs is much like the personal electronics scene of the late 1990s. Think back to the days when a well-outfitted early adopter would have a standalone GPS receiver, mobile phone and personal digital assistant. The lucky few managed to connect that phone to the PDA and access a rudimentary World Wide Web, in grayscale and text. Likewise today’s UMV users must acquire a specific kit for particular missions. Modular architectures and shrinking sensors are increasing utility for individual platforms. Today we are still awaiting the equivalent of the smartphone era in ocean operations.

 
A network of UMVs will enable new operational concepts. Photo courtesy Teledyne Benthos.

 

The Future: Networked UMVs

Carrying forward the comparison to mobile phones, what might UMV operators look forward to in the future? Today an average smartphone user can take their device anywhere in the world and access voice calls, email, Web browsing, map-based navigation and a host of specialized apps for advanced tasks such as currency calculations or travel bookings. This capability is built upon enabling developments in hardware and accepted standards for connectivity. Seamless roaming across different networks is also key to the user experience. Such a reality is coming to the undersea realm. 

UMVs in coming years will draw upon advanced connectivity to “network” into ever more productive roles. UMV payload modules will be swappable between a traditional survey UUV and a long-endurance glider. Meanwhile, gliders will include propellers to overcome the occasional current or better navigate in operational areas such as under ice. Drifting and energy harvesting surface platforms will provide overhead coverage for telemetry and positioning to heterogeneous undersea systems. Open communications protocols will enable basic roaming for UMVs moving among networks. How might such a future change the picture for actual ocean applications? Consider the following hypothetical presentation of the four themes evaluated above.

 
A long-endurance UUV enables ocean observation. Photo courtesy Ben Allsup, Teledyne Webb Research.

Survey

A UUV is deployed from a chartered fishing vessel that simply launches it over the side. The UUV locates and follows a pipeline equipped with undersea “cell towers” that guide the UUV and ensure operators ashore receive prompt notification of the UUV’s findings. Pipeline condition is analyzed and anomalies flagged for follow up without any dedicated vessel — significantly reducing cost. 

Inspection

A small, smart ROV is deployed from a similarly small commercial support vessel. Sophisticated autopilots link the ROV and vessel, and the pair slowly follows the pipeline to inspect anomalies found by the UMV. A trained watch stander “points and clicks” the operation to completion, freeing highly skilled ROV pilots for intervention tasks, optimizing capital and operating investments. On large, fixed installations an AIV deploys from a dedicated launch recovery and docking basket and provides wireless inspections of wellhead equipment. 

Observing

In open water, a drifting profiling float with advanced instruments detects a potential oil leak and adapts its dive to surface and alert operators ashore. The operators task a patrolling glider and nearby surface vessel, both energy harvesting and thus on station for months or years. The UMV pair home in on the oil site and adaptively sample the plume, sharing the data with both commercial and government observers. The regulators determine the event is a natural seep and response vessels are not required, saving both organizations valuable funds and time.

Connectivity

Integrated networks of various wireless technologies will provide low bandwidth but reliable coverage, much like first-generation cellular networks. Full data sets may reside on local UMV solid-state drives, but status information and key data identified through onboard analytics will be exchanged across the network, ensuring operators are informed and support assets are deployed for maximum efficiency. Consider the pipeline survey UUV, now docked with a gateway node along the pipeline. To request recovery, the UUV can send an SMS to request to predetermined regional assets, such as fishing vessels. The nearest available vessel can confirm the request on the network and move to recover the UUV. The recovery fee would more than compensate for the short deviation from fishing activity. Such an integrated subsea network minimizes downtime, even without the speed taken for granted in wired networks.

Apps for Ocean Ops

Seafarers tend to be conservative and may find the vision presented above preposterous. But those same seafarers today may video chat with their family from a vessel half a world away. In the not too distant future, after hanging up the video call on their smartphone, they could switch to a UMV app and guide a sophisticated sensor platform to its next mission — no cables, dive gear or joysticks required. The ocean is vast and will not be tamed easily, but with tomorrow’s technology today’s tasks will be more like picking a restaurant in a handheld app than reeling in a net to a fishing dory. 

Justin E. Manley is senior director of business development for Teledyne Benthos.