Q&A: uncrewed evolution under Fugro and SEA-KIT

Fugro and SEA-KIT International, the Essex-based winner of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, are developing uncrewed surface vessels that can deploy remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles to inspect marine assets.

(Image: SEA-KIT International)

Ivar de Josselin de Jong, Director Robotics, Remote and Autonomy at geo-data specialist Fugro, spoke to The Engineer about the rationale behind the collaboration and the advantages offered by uncrewed surface vessels.

What prompted the partnership between SEA-KIT International and Fugro, and what’s next for this project?

We wanted to accelerate the uptake of uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) as we see this as critical to the future of the marine industry. SEA-KIT International’s expertise in designing and building vessels for maritime and research industries made them an obvious choice, partnering their know-how with our own track record in the marine inspection market.

Plymouth Sound to become proving ground for autonomous marine vessels

The next five years will see a reduction in the reliance on large vessels, with greater focus on compact agile USVs, as part of the important transition towards remote subsea operations. With the UK Government’s Maritime 2050 roadmap setting ambitious targets of zero emission ships globally by 2050, our partnership with SEA-KIT International aligns itself to this strategy of USVs, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).

Remote working solutions are fast, safe, cost-effective and lead to better data

Where are the USVs made and what are the processes involved?

The USVs have been designed and developed by SEA-KIT’s team of in-house naval architects. By eliminating the need for accommodating onboard crew, SEA-KIT has been able to completely rethink and redesign the vessel. The USV design ensures that it can be easily and cost-effectively configured to a wide range of maritime tasks, including the launch and recovery of a variety of payloads such as AUVs and Fugro’s next generation electric inspection ROV. The current SEA-KIT X-class vessel can also be transported in a single 40ft container, which significantly reduces mobilisation costs.

The USVs have hybrid diesel-electric engines that allow the vessel to operate further offshore for a longer period, whilst also significantly lowering their carbon footprint.

The USVs are assembled onsite at SEA-KIT’s workshop in Tollesbury, Essex. The Tollesbury workshop and office’s location proximity to the Blackwater estuary allows for rapid deployment for sea trials and testing of payloads in a variety of marine conditions. SEA-KIT also works closely with local universities such as the University of Essex, with whom SEA-KIT is currently partnering to develop a secure and intelligent communication system.

What are some of the key benefits of USVs, and what does this mean for the marine industry more broadly?

There is no doubt that USVs are the future of marine exploration, unlocking many key benefits for industry players:

  • Firstly, and most importantly, the biggest benefit is the reduction of HSSE exposure and risk. Remote operation centres (ROCs) manage uncrewed vessels by deploying ROVs, which means we can significantly reduce the number of personnel offshore and have them deliver the same high-quality output from an onshore position. USVs are a crucial link in enabling the transfer of teams to an onshore environment and through cloud-based data acquisition, processing and delivery solutions, we can deliver a very successful remote solution that operates with a significantly lower HSSE risk;
  • A second benefit is increased sustainability. The integration of smaller and hybrid uncrewed vessels leads to a significant reduction in fuel consumption, on average 95 per cent less than traditional vessels. This consequently reduces the operational carbon footprint. As the transition from traditional vessels to USVs speeds up over the next few years, this impact will become even more significant;
  • The third benefit is the ability to fully optimise our teams and our way of working. With the deployment of these technologies, staff can start analysing and interpreting acquired data almost immediately rather than having to mobilise offshore and spend time on complex logistics;
  • This leads to a final obvious advantage: real-time insights, and faster data-processing and data delivery, leading to more efficient decision-making. With more complex data to analyse, we can offer better insights and advice to our clients. Through digitisation and cloud-based solutions, we will be able to offer near-real-time data to clients, anywhere in the world. As others learn from this example and follow suit with their own new technologies and methods, the industry as a whole will benefit. These changes will bring faster, more efficient and significantly more sustainable operations.

In 2019, we opened two more ROCs in Aberdeen and Leidschendam, meaning we now have seven ROCs worldwide. Integration of the new USVs into the ROCs will allow us to provide the industry with an entirely remote-controlled subsea inspection solution for the first time in history.

How urgently must maritime businesses look to incorporate features that allow remote working?

Fugro
(Image: SEA-KIT International)

In the future, subsea activities will be driven by remote operations, so it is important to begin preparing for this transition now. There is much to be learned from other industries such as transport, health and agriculture, where remote and robotic operations are already being successfully implemented. With the UK government’s commitment to eliminate vessel emissions, and the relevant legislation changes likely to follow, it is vital that maritime businesses quickly adjust their positions and seek remote solutions.

In addition to technology and legislation, Fugro recognises the human factor as a major component in the change management of remote working, both from a personal perspective and in respect of skills, competencies and qualifications. Offshore personnel have often structured their personal lives around rotational work and have a career based on offshore experience. With the change to operations controlled from Fugro’s onshore ROCs, we need to help our workforce prepare for this and we are already developing dedicated training programmes to facilitate a smooth transition.

Remote working solutions are fast, safe, cost-effective and lead to better data. Increased sustainability is essential to the future of the marine industry and our world, and we hope the work Fugro is doing with SEA-KIT will lead the way for others to follow.