Development of the Next Generation Subsea Autonomous Vehicles
For nearly three years, Oceaneering has focused on developing a next-generation software platform for our vehicles. Developing advanced autonomy – both for surface and subsea applications – is a large part of this program.
The intent of the new platform, aptly named Compass, is to create an agnostic operating system that can be easily applied to any vehicle, whether it is a surface crawler robot used for topside platform inspection tasks or a subsea autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) used for long-range missions. The advantage of adopting this agnostic approach is that the platform becomes unified and enables the simultaneous and easy roll-out of updates to an entire fleet. It provides the additional benefit of generating an ever-expanding track record for autonomy sub-modules across the multiple platforms where Compass is used. This consistency of use will result in an unprecedented amount of autonomous running hours which will then aid in developing the confidence of customers and supporting their acceptance of new features in a proven system.
Oceaneering sees the future within oil and gas robotics to be a combination of man-in-the-loop operations, like our traditional remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), as well as autonomous capabilities, without anyone in direct control of the vehicle, being used to complete parts of a work scope. We believe that the line between what is remote controlled and what is autonomous will become increasingly blurred over the next few years, so much so that we anticipate every vehicle must have the capabilities to do operate in both scenarios.
In March 2019, Oceaneering launched a new software development vehicle at our autonomy development center near Tau, about 30 minutes from Stavanger, Norway. We have a full development team working at Tau that uses a small, modular underwater vehicle to test the software features for our new platform. The vehicle can be modified with different sensor payloads as testing progresses. The software development team has grown and is now located globally, enabling us to make the best use of different time zones and to minimize the time between new developments, testing, and verification.
Our test location in Tau, also dubbed the Oceaneering Living Lab, is located at the base of the training facilities of the Norwegian Center for Offshore Education (NOSEFO). From this site, we are able to launch and control our vehicles from the quayside and navigate our vehicles out to a shore-side obstacle course with a subsea docking station, various pipelines, and other infrastructure designed to replicate an offshore environment. This setup is used to ensure the software we develop works as intended and is thoroughly tested for reliability during the course of our development program.
Compass Development Vehicle demonstrating autonomous docking on the Equinor Docking Station
The Curve Ball
In the summer of 2019, a few months into our testing, Equinor asked us whether we could use our Living Lab and the development vehicle to demonstrate autonomous subsea docking. Our development team quickly accepted the challenge. While subsea autodocking was not strictly part of our Phase One development plan, we were confident in our capabilities and the functionality was firmly on our project road map.
During August and September, a mock-up docking station was installed and the development of autonomous docking features became priority number one. The demonstration of autonomous docking quickly became a major event, led by Equinor, with more than 400 invited guests spread over two days in October. The event attracted the who’s who of global technology suppliers who displayed the latest developments in technology. During the two-day event, the Oceaneering development vehicle docked autonomously on two different docking station designs, one prototype and one developed by BlueLogic for Equinor, no fewer than 50 times.
Oceaneering Living Lab for development of Next-Generation Subsea Autonomy
As soon as the dust had settled and our remote test location returned to its normal activity, the team again turned its focus on the 2020 objectives: the development of advanced autonomous pipeline tracking capabilities, with very close pipeline proximity and very tight tolerances. In addition, advanced object detection and avoidance will be developed to ensure that our vehicles perform these tasks with no risk to themselves or existing subsea infrastructure.
In parallel to the software development project, Oceaneering is developing a new subsea vehicle called FreedomTM ROV. This vehicle is designed to make full use of the new software platform, initially enhancing our existing AUV survey offerings and also enabling subsea, field-resident solutions for inspection and light intervention tasks. The first Freedom vehicle is nearing its completion and has replaced our development vehicle at the Living Lab. This change out enables the implementation of the Compass software platform and further development of the advanced autonomy capabilities required in the future. The Freedom vehicle will undergo offshore TRL 6 qualification trials during the summer of 2020 for pipeline tracking work scopes.
Rendering of first commercial application for Freedom: pipeline survey in 2020.
The Future for the Living Lab
In early 2019, Oceaneering moved the development of the Freedom vehicle and the Compass software platform to Stavanger.
Autonomy software requires thousands of hours of in-water run time in realistic environments. This is something that can be achieved quayside with the steep-sloped fjords in Norway. This makes testing a significantly less costly affair and delivers notable efficiencies when considering time and schedule.
Daily Launch and Recovery of the Compass Development Vehicle at the Oceaneering Living Lab
Being in Stavanger also affords Oceaneering a network of technology vendors and customers who accept this new technology in the North Sea, especially in a region noted for its unparalleled focus on new developments. The Oceaneering development program has already greatly benefitted from this network of suppliers with assistance from others who have paved the way. Oceaneering hopes to show its appreciation to the vendor network by joining the newly established Tau Autonomy Center, which will be the enabler of continued autonomy development in air and water.
Once the Freedom’s ROV’s planned offshore operations are completed at the end of summer 2020, we plan to return to Tau for another six months of autonomy development and qualification to expand on the vehicles autonomous capabilities in close cooperation with our customers.TOPP