The job of an ROV pilot is a complex one: they have to be both highly skilled and highly trained in order to navigate vehicles through difficult environments as efficiently as possible. Precision, a sharp eye for sonar, and a steady hand are all vital for success, especially when faced with a multitude of real-world challenges. It’s one thing flying an ROV in a testing pool, but fighting currents hundreds of metres under the sea whilst navigating through complex structures is another thing altogether.
Furthermore, although ROVs are undeniably an indispensable tool in the Oil and Gas industry, they don’t come cheap. The vehicle itself can be an expensive piece of kit: ideally not something to be carried off course at speed into a harbour wall. And in addition to the cost of the ROV itself, one must also consider the cost of kit and sensors, support vessels, cable for the umbilical and - of course - a specialist pilot to fly the ROV.
ROV pilots are commonly employed on a contractor basis, and as those familiar with the industry will know delays in the project can quickly cause costs to spiral. With the Oil and Gas industry facing turbulent times, it’s more important than ever to consider the impact of such unforeseen costs. This article will look at software developments for ROVs that not only optimise how the pilot flies the vehicle, but also provide solutions that will help save money and generate further income.
In the past surveying has typically relied upon expert piloting skills to keep the ROV on a set course at a predetermined speed, heading, and height from the seabed. The pilot has to account for currents from all directions in order to create a smooth path for the ROV to travel on whilst collecting data.
Often times the investment in a skilled pilot can be compromised if the ROV cannot be made to steer the course. Software which allows the ROVs route to be planned using waypoints means that the ROV is able to maintain a pre-laid course and offers a stable platform from which to gather data. Stability is of paramount importance when gathering data. Equally important as surveying for data, is the ability to keep the vehicle still whilst inspecting a point of interest or using manipulators to perform a task.
The capabilities of the ROV rely on the piloting, and this in turn ultimately relies on the navigation software underpinning it. There has been a surge in software developments aimed at providing pilots and ROV users with the most sophisticated tech to get the most out of their ROV. The aim of these is not to replace the operator with a fully automated piloting system. Rather these act as an aid to enhance the pilot’s experience. Software packages are now available that allow the user to get the most out of the vehicle’s on-board sensors by consolidating all the information into one comprehensive interface from where the vehicle can be navigated.
This technology allows the user to control the vehicle using point-and-click navigation overlaid on to the real-time sonar image. The pilot is then able to fly the ROV to a specific point literally at the click of a mouse.
One such software package is SeeByte’s CoPilot. CoPilot permits pilot controlled auto-transit and stop-and-hover, whilst providing automated sonar tracking and movement relative to a target. This allows the vehicle to inspect a point of interest with greater precision. This is all done through a straightforward point-and-click user interface. With the recent addition of mosaicking technology, users of CoPilot are now able to generate multibeam imaging sonar mosaics in real-time. The tool can be used to quickly generate maps of the environment in order to help improve the ROV pilots’ geo-spatial awareness.
Today, standard solutions like SeeByte’s CoPilot can have a positive and direct impact on the operation of the ROV. The beauty of CoPilot is that the surroundings can drastically change, yet the point-and-click interface remains consistently simple. Navigating using waypoints or through point-and-click gives the pilot more time to evaluate the best course of action; if a waypoint looks to be out of position the pilot can easily adjust this in advance.
The waypoint navigation offered by CoPilot integrates directly with the vehicle’s navigation and control system. As many an experienced pilot will know, poor communication links with the ROV can quickly put a stop to operations. With the piloting software actually integrated into the vehicle itself, when the vehicle loses signal it will automatically stop and hover. Or if there is poor yet sufficient connection it will continue to the next waypoint.
Small Data; Big Possibilities
The beauty of waypoint navigation is that it only requires very small amounts of data to be transmitted. Small data means low bandwidth, and this opens the door to new possible means of transmitting data and communicating with the vehicle. The link between a topside laptop and the ROV via the umbilical ensures full communication and control. CoPilot can then be remotely accessed on the topside laptop. As the commands in CoPilot require very low bandwith with only small packets of data being transmitted, piloting an ROV via WiFi or satellite communications becomes a viable option. Now anywhere with an internet connection can become a potential ROV piloting station.
Will this mean fewer pilots offshore? Not initially, but it does mean that expert pilots can contribute to a mission from any point in the world at any time. Instead of being on top of the ROV in a vessel or rig, controlling the vehicle via a joystick, the piloting can be done from any location in the world. SeeByte has already demonstrated this concept by helping customers fly their ROVs in locations as far afield as Bahrain and San Diego from offices in the UK. Using just a WiFi connection, SeeByte was able to pilot the ROVs with exactly the same degree of control as a pilot flying the vehicles onsite.
This not only makes life easier for the pilot, but also for the support crew. With traditional ROV piloting, the support vessel and crew will ideally be positioned as close to directly above the ROV as possible. Now the supervisor and support crew can be anywhere, even in relatively remote locations.
A trial was carried out at the ROVOP Test Tank facilities in Aberdeen in collaboration with Seatronics, an Acteon company. There Richie Enzmann from ROV Planet was given the opportunity to fly the Seatronics Predator ROV remotely from SeeByte HQ in Edinburgh using CoPilot. The Predator is a versatile inspection class ROV. Its compact and portable structure allow it to operate in all sectors, as well as, ensuring easy deployment and operation. SeeByte chose to collaborate with Seatronics and the Predator ROV due to its reliability, technologically advanced electronics framework, and stability whilst under SeeByte control.
Using a WiFi link to communicate with the CoPilot node on the Predator, Richie was able to fly the ROV as if he was operating the vehicle locally from a vessel. With the ROV in the water, he was then able to use the CoPilot interface to navigate the ROV around the tank based on the live sonar feed. Richie was also able to use video to inspect points of interest from a closer angle. We were able to keep in touch with the Seatronics team on site via phone, and they were then able to launch and recover the ROV as needed. Once under SeeByte’s control, the Predator engineers had minimum interaction with the vehicle due to the autonomy of the task.
Steve Mullan, ROV Engineering and Operations Supervisor, Seatronics, said, ‘Eliminating the need for an operator to be physically present at the surface controls of the Predator has been an aspiration for the ROV Team at Seatronics for some time now.
‘The innovation demonstrated by SeeByte in remotely controlling the Predator is exceptionally impressive. This process widens the scope for remote diagnostic intervention and the ability for a pilot to complete specialised tasks from anywhere in the world.’
The future of ROV piloting, and indeed ROV operations in general, could face a potentially drastic overhaul if remote piloting becomes a widespread reality. Remote ROV piloting opens up the potential for pilots to carry out tasks in locations away from the shore, or even from offices on the other side of the globe. You could be forgiven for assuming that ROV pilots were one occupation unlikely to benefit from the recent trend of working from home. However with the current developments in ROV technology it may just well be on the horizon.
Katie Rittoo, Sales and Marketing Assistant, SeeByte