Slick operator

Radar-based technology for instantly detecting and monitoring oil spills has been unveiled by engineers in Norway. Developed by offshore sensing expert Miros, the system is claimed to be capable of spotting and tracking the tiniest oil spills from up to 4.5km away regardless of weather or light conditions.

Miros managing director Erik Sandsdalen said the technology is underpinned by algorithms that can glean extra information from the data provided by conventional marine radar navigation systems. It is the first system of its kind, he claimed.

In the past offshore operators have relied upon hit-and-miss visual inspection techniques and costly helicopter-mounted infrared cameras to monitor spills. Sandsdalen said that while more recently operators have begun to look at the use of satellites to find oil spills, this technique is hampered by cloud cover and the fact that it is only possible to obtain an image once or twice every 24 hours.

The first customer for the new system is NOFO, the spill response organisation for oil producers on the Norwegian continental shelf. Owned by companies including BP, Shell and ExxonMobil, NOFO has been testing the system for several months and is now preparing to install a further five on its special monitoring ships that patrol the Norwegian oilfields.

Sandsdalen said the organisation hopes to use the technology to track oil spills, and provide the skimming vessels used to clean them up with extremely accurate information on their location and size. He added that the priority is to prevent an oil spill from coming into shore, because once this occurs the cost of clearing it increases dramatically.

The system is an evolution of the company’s Wavex wave-monitoring technology. Used world- wide as a navigational aid, this operates with a ship’s radar as sensor for gathering information on current, as well as the height period and direction of waves.

It does this by analysing tiny waves or ripples on the surface of the water that occur 98 per cent of the time but are almost invisible to the naked eye. These ‘capillary’ waves can be used to predict wave height and direction as well as current.

However, with careful refinement and the application of innovative new algorithms, it is possible to use the same system to monitor other things on the surface such as oil spills.

This is largely because the presence of oil causes these capillary waves to completely disappear and therefore the lack of a signal back from the radar could be interpreted as an indication of the presence of oil.

Sandsdalen said that, while NOFO is using the system on-board ships that patrol areas where there is significant oil drilling activity, it could also be mounted on an offshore platform. There it would continuously monitor the surrounding waters, triggering an alarm if an oil spill were detected.

He confirmed that he is in discussion with a number of oil companies. ‘There is a very high interest in the product and a number of oil companies are interested in having such a system on-board their platforms,’ he said.