Drones for the deep

 By Nicholas Newman

Increasingly it is a common sight see drones operating in the sea, usually at work constructing subsea pipelines, oil and gas wells, monitoring pipelines and telecom cables. Increasingly, drones are being used because many of the new offshore oil and gas wells are in waters too deep for divers to safely operate in. In addition scientists are using such drones to explore the life of the sea bed, to discover new species and knowledge about a part of the world which is largely unexplored. Nicholas Newman looks at the technology involved, its uses and future potential…

Maritime drones—especially underwater drones—are used in a variety of settings. They are proving invaluable in aiding underwater construction in offshore oil and gas fields, and also in helping underwater archaeologists search for lost wrecks and sunken cities. Filmmakers find them useful in a variety of underwater scenes.

Increasingly unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) are taking over the dullest, dirtiest, and most dangerous jobs including mapping, water sampling, harbor patrolling, and sea mine detection to make the seas safer for everyone. They can be remotely operated (ROVs) by a person sitting in a control center many miles away or, as autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and, more attractively, as subsea robots.

SEE MORE: Eni Clean sea

The robot that monitors the sea

Current high-value drone market

The global unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) market was worth an estimated $2.29 billion in 2015 and is expected to grow to $4 billion by 2020 in response to growing deepwater offshore oil and gas production, maritime security concerns and the need for ocean data and mapping.

Underwater vehicles will be necessary to map the roughly 95 percent of the world’s seas that are unmapped. Leading market customer segments for subsea drones include the global oil and gas industry and, of course, navies.

Oil and Gas companies

ROVs are critical for offshore oil and gas exploration and production. An ROV is essentially an underwater robot that allows the vehicle operator (ROV Pilot) to complete tasks in areas that are often too deep and or dangerous for divers. For example, ROVs are used for inspecting underwater rigs, monitoring pipelines, site-survey planning for seismic operations, environmental surveys and oil-spill clean-up management of wells situated in ecologically sensitive areas. Total’s $3.5 billion deepwater gas field, Laggan Tormore, located 125 kilometers (78 miles) northwest of the Shetland isles is the most significant oil and gas project of recent times in UK waters.

Tough working conditions with extreme winter storms and very cold seabed temperatures made ROVs essential. Aberdeen-based Specialist Subsea Services (S³) employed ROVs fitted with sonars, magnetometers, a still camera, a manipulator or cutting arm, water samplers and various measuring instruments, all operated from a surface vessel via a cable in order to install a semi-autonomous subsea production system in 600 meters (1,968 feet) of water.

Osiris Marine

Naval military purposes

Subsea drones are used for harbor patrols, mine detection and as “eyes” to monitor sea traffic. One of the US navy’s many projects is the development of subsea patrol drones that can operate for long periods underwater. Such autonomous underwater drones could no doubt prove valuable in any future oceanic warfare, but for now, they are probably used to collect military-naval intelligence on Russia and China.

However, the current fleet of robotic underwater drones is susceptible to real-time communication difficulties, not only from the distorting effects of surrounding seawater but also multiple obstacles that a drone has to negotiate. By 2017, the US Navy hopes to resolve the communication problem and increase the underwater staying time for up to 70 days.

Affordable subsea drones

The development of affordable “consumer” subsea drones is a relatively new trend. At a cost of $1,000 and upwards, they are affordable for a wide set of customers including small businesses, researchers, leisure divers and individuals who just want to own and operate drones.

Like their more expensive counterparts, consumer drones also come in two formats: remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), which are controlled by a remote human operator, and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which operate independently of direct human input. Two distinct products are currently marketed: the open ROV and the iBubble.

iBubble: your autonomous underwater camera

The OpenRov

Almost 3,000 openROV low-cost home-assembly underwater kits have been sold. Once assembled, they can navigate below the surface of rivers, lakes and oceans. The first version is connected by a thin cable and controlled by software running on a tablet or smartphone. A new version, the Trident, will be available before Christmas at a cost of $1,499.

It will reach speeds of up to four knots underwater and will have a high-resolution camera and a lighting system as bright as car headlights. It will operate from a wirelessly connected buoy, thereby enabling one to operate further from the shore.

The iBubble

The iBubble is aimed at the diving enthusiast who would rather see the underwater world through his or her goggles without being burdened by an extra lens. The iBubble is an “intelligent, user-friendly, and completely autonomous diving drone” that allows you to take your camera to where it has never gone before. It is controlled at the wrist with a compatible bracelet.

The iBubble’s hydrodynamic design allows it to withstand currents of up to 3 knots and travel at a maximum depth of 60 meters (1,968 feet). Cameras such as the GoPro and Hero 3 will fit snugly in the iBubble. If you want to set it free and let it take shots of its own, the iBubble can stray up to 25 meters (82 feet) away from you.

As is so often the case, products initially developed by the military are redesigned, first for commercial use and then for the wider consumer market—this is now the case with underwater drones.

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.