‘Toolbox’ could improve deep-sea inspection of oil pipelines

The oil industry could benefit from a new deep-sea underwater inspection technology developed through an EU-funded research programme.

Researchers involved in the GREX project aim to develop new technology that will allow autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to work together as a team, meaning that it will be possible to inspect more vital deep-sea oil drilling infrastructure at greater speed.

Jörg Kalwa, who represents project co-ordinator ATLAS Elektronik, said that the oil industry normally carries out inspections of offshore pipelines with remotely operated unmanned vehicles (ROVs) controlled by long cables that relay information to a supply ship on the sea surface.

These ships are expensive to rent and he said that savings could be made by deploying a team of long-range AUVs to carry out inspections from multiple angles and locations simultaneously.

While oil companies have used AUVs for deep ocean-floor explorations before, the devices are usually designed to carry out various inspection duties on their own, Kalwa said, meaning they carry a significant amount of onboard sensors and move slowly as they comb vast areas.

Moreover, he said, transmitting messages acoustically through seawater is difficult because bandwidth is limited, so signal range and quality is extremely poor.

The GREX researchers believe they have devised a way to overcome this challenge with a specially designed technology ‘toolbox’ containing networking equipment and software that can be retrofitted onto AUVs. This onboard technology will allow AUVs to co-ordinate missions and work as a team across square kilometers of sea.

Kalwa said an AUV designated as the ‘team leader’ will distribute the mission plan through signals that reflect from one vehicle to the other. 

‘It has the potential to decrease vehicle complexity,’ he said. ‘One can imagine in the future the AUVs being dedicated to one role and by combining the vehicles you create a kind of super structure with different abilities.’

The GREX team has tested the technology in a series of sea trials and plans to initially market the control software user interface for managing AUV schools through project partner SeeByte.

Kalwa said that ATLAS Elektronik will be marketing a complete system including the toolbox, software and installation and training within five years.

Click here for an in-depth look at ROVs.