Robot submarine used to assess decommissioned oil fields

Project led by University of Southampton deploys autonomous vehicle

Credit: National Oceanography Centre

Researchers have used camera-equipped autonomous underwater vehicles with the aim of better understanding oil fields in the North Sea in the process of being decommissioned.

The robotic submarine, known as Boaty McBoatface, surveyed areas surrounding decommissioned oil and gas structures off the coast of Shetland, collecting data. It is hoped the project can pave the way for future marine surveys delivered by autonomous submarines.

The Autosub Long Range (ALR) vehicle captured high-resolution colour images, using a 3D-mapping system. Boaty McBoatface carried out two missions over 21 days, covering 1,013km, replacing a large survey vessel that would normally assess end-of-life oil and gas fields. The ALR, which was tracked via satellite, was launched and retrieved at the shore and was powered with rechargeable batteries that used the equivalent energy as two litres of fuel.  

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Research was undertaken by experts from the University of Southampton, alongside the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). The centre was created by the university and government body the Natural Environment Research Council but, while still working closely with government, now operates as an autonomous non-profit entity.

Adrian Bodenmann, a researcher on the project, said: “Even though we were many 1,000 km away in our Boldrewood offices in Southampton, we could keep track of the quality of data being gathered using algorithms embedded onboard BioCam, and know of any risks or hazards to the vehicle mission. We worked together with the team at NOC and updated mission parameters when needed while the robot was still at the sites. It was this rapid remote awareness of the data that was the key to making the surveys a success.”

Project lead, Daniel Jones from NOC, said: “Through the success of the… mission, we have demonstrated how this leading robotic technology from NOC could be used worldwide to support crucial ocean monitoring, whilst drastically reducing carbon emissions. Autonomous submarines offer many advantages over current approaches; improving the quality and quantity of environmental information while cutting the cost and environmental impact for a survey ship and its crew.”


Sam Trendall

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