May 25, 2018

Real-time technology at work in the deep sea

By Manuel Parente, CTO, Abyssal S.A.

The ocean covers more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and is a vital source of food, energy, transportion and scientific discovery, yet the vast majority of it remains unexplored. For industries ranging from oil and gas to marine renewables to biotechnology and even those not traditionally focused on the ocean, the ocean represents huge untapped potential.


As we venture to deeper and more remote seas, safety for humans, marine life and the environment continue to be critical factors. While companies ramp up oceanic activity in both known and unexplored regions, it is vital to look beyond our own industries to stay on top of technological trends and best practices that we can learn from and adopt for greater efficiency and safety at sea.

A major part of the subsea operations across industries is the use of ROVs to overcome the limitations of human divers. However, ROVs also come with their own management difficulties. ROV pilots regularly face visibility challenges, which may slow down an operation, resulting in additional costs for labor and support as timelines increase, in addition to greater risk. In the last several years, we have begun to see technological innovation in ROV operations coming from an unlikely place: the video game world.


Video games are designed and built on top of a game engine technology platform, which enables real-time visualization to track players and change their surroundings as they move through dynamic, virtual environments. Several years ago, we discovered that by combining game engine technology with a robust geographic information system (GIS), real-time visualization power can be leveraged to monitor ROVs, or anything else with a tracking beacon, and to deploy an augmented reality (AR) overlay on the pilot’s video feed to continue with an operation uninterrupted.

We have been using Unreal Engine; its power and flexibility allow for us to continually adapt to the needs of our clients across the subsea oil and gas industry. Pilots can track their ROVs with submillimeter accuracy and through the gathering and processing of live data from the ROV, receive a contextualized, real-time picture of the ROVs undersea environment, even when visibility is compromised. This benefits not just the ROV pilot; stakeholders at every stage, from design to construction and operation, get a precise view of what is happening in real time enabling teams to respond better and faster, or get a realistic preview of what could happen in order to anticipate issues and speed up development projects. Teams can study the data captured to learn lessons that can be applied to future operations.


This untraditional technology has huge implications for safety and efficiency in the ocean industries. Real-time location tracking and visualization means that entire teams can be moved from offshore to onshore and a project can be managed remotely. This improves safety and reduces cost for vessel maintenance and transport. The ability to stay onshore also helps jobs in our industries remain more competitive. For the oil and gas industry in particular, as oil prices keep dropping, having lower operational costs can help turn negative returns into positive returns and get previously non-viable projects going.  Ultimately, across ocean industries, being offshore is where the greatest risk and costs lie. Technology that enables us to move more of the operation onshore is a huge benefit.


As the tech world makes strides in fields such as cloud computing, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, those of us working in ocean-based fields should continue to think outside the box for how these trends will revolutionize our operations. No doubt there is more untapped potential out there if we look for it, just like there is so much more to discover in our largely unexplored oceans.