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Developing underwater ROVs – Remotely Operated Vehicles

Mike Harrison
Senior Sector Specialist
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Research ROV vessel sailing through arctic fjord in Iceland
Underwater ROVs, or Remotely Operated Vehicles to give them their full name, have become a key marine technology.

These drones of the sea world have been embraced by the oil and gas industry, researchers, enthusiasts, the military and even drug dealers. ROVs significantly enhance the capabilities of organisations to explore, inspect and maintain underwater environments and assets. They are also often cost-effective solutions and a safer option than sending in people to work at depth.

That is no surprise when you consider that ROVs operate in some of the harshest environments on the planet. These underwater robots may be exposed to intense pressure, low to zero light, freezing temperatures and extreme weather – all whilst being off the communications grid.

What types of ROV are there?

Before ROVs there were HOVs (Human Occupied Vehicles). However, these were never going to be as useful as their successors due to the inherent risk that pilots would be exposed to, and limitations that manned crafts would face. So, from the 1950s and 1960s, ROVs were developed to fulfil a range of mission types. Now there are several categories of ROV, each intended for different operations.

  • Small Electric Vehicles – Typically with a single camera, these are used for observation and inspection up to 300 metres.
  • High Capability Electric ROVs – These can operate at far greater depths than small electric vehicles (in excess of 6,000 metres) but are still limited to minor observation work.
  • Work Class ROVs – These are heavier duty machines that can carry out more complex tasks using a seven-function manipulating arm and five-function grabbing arm. They are powered electrically and with hydraulics and are often used in the drilling and construction support sector.
  • Heavy Work Class ROVs – The most powerful ROVs, these have 100-250 horsepower and multiple arms for advanced functionality.
  • AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles) – These are the next generation of underwater robots. Strictly speaking they are not ROVs as they do not require human control. This makes them ideal for long surveying missions lasting several months.

What do ROVs do?

As we have said, ROVs have been embraced by many industries because of the benefits they offer over manned missions. But what do they actually do? Well that depends on their size and what equipment they carry.

The most basic ROVs will carry cameras and are used for observation and inspection. Most will be loaded with many more sensors though, so can be used to inspect both the natural world, and commercial assets like oil pipelines, in great detail. As this video from Oceaneering shows this could include multi-beam sonar, laser scanning, and photographic scanning.

Examples of other sensors that ROVs carry are compasses, depth gauges, side-scans, magnetometers, thermistors and conductivity probes.

There is often a lot at stake in the work they do. Therefore ROVs must be designed and constructed to the highest standards to ensure they can operate reliably and effectively. This requires extensive and continuous research and development (R&D).

With new technologies being developed all the time, integrating them into ROVs helps those in the marine industry overcome technological barriers and push the boundaries of underwater exploration.

R&D in ROVs

Typical areas of R&D for engineers developing the latest ROVs include:

  • Developing long-lasting power systems like battery packs, fuel cells, and harnessing renewable energy sources.
  • Improving propulsion systems.
  • Increasing payload capacity.
  • Stress-testing materials and fixings.
  • Calibrating buoyancy.
  • Integrating arrays of sensors.
  • Optimising cameras and other sensors for underwater use.
  • Installing the latest comms equipment.
  • Upgrading human controls and interfaces.

R&D tax credits and ROV development

For UK companies conducting R&D into areas such as the above, there is strong potential to qualify for the government’s R&D tax incentive. This rewards companies for their innovation by reducing the corporation tax they pay or even providing a cash credit.

With reliability and performance being particularly important in the marine sector, the type of R&D being carried out is likely to be innovative in nature. Well, it’s an exciting world out there, so let’s explore at some of the cutting-edge ROV technology being developed, and how it is being used in the real world.

Using ROVs for science

The ocean depths are probably the most unexplored part of the planet. Pitch darkness, extreme pressure and remote locations make them challenging for human exploration. It is suspected that they contain a treasure trove of natural and scientific wonder. Now, the use of ROV technology is enabling us to explore these with ever greater success.

Specialist ROVs for exploring under ice

DOER (Deep Ocean Exploration and Research) are a Californian-based firm. Originally founded in the 1990s as a marine consultancy, they expanded their offering to include ROV and submersible support. In 2009 they helped Google create the Oceans layer of the Google Earth project.

They have a fleet of specially designed ROVs used for both commercial and scientific purposes. One of their ROVs was conceived for collecting data within ice bore holes. Called SIR (Sub Ice ROV), this large ROV is depth rated to 1,500 metres and is designed to fit down a bore hole 1,000 metres deep.

This specialist use puts major design constraints on SIR, meaning extensive R&D will have been required to build a fully functioning machine. To fit down the bore hole it must be tubular, but once it reaches the bottom it transforms into its operational shape. Carrying 27 different sensors and tools, many of them had to be modified to fit and operate within the unusual shape.

The Sub Ice ROV is used to explore the little-understood region where ice leaves the shore and floats to sea called the “grounding line”. It is hoped the exploration will collect key information about unknown animal species, geology below the ice and climate change.

Extreme depth ROVs

To understand the harsh conditions that ROVs are exposed to, let’s consider the pressure that this equipment must be designed to withstand. The depth of the Mariana Trench (the deepest point in the Earth’s oceans) is nearly 11,000 metres. Down there, the crushing pressure is equivalent to two Humvees being pressed onto a thumbnail.

Nereus was a unique ROV designed to withstand the pressure at 10,000 metres. It belonged to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and cost $8 million to develop.  It had completed 75 dives across 13 missions. During its 14th mission and 76th dive in 2014, disaster struck. Its five camera feeds went black and it failed to return to the surface under its emergency protocols. A little later, debris started emerging that showed the ROV had probably imploded under the sheer pressure it was exposed to.

Nereus was equipped with high and ultra-high definition cameras, an advanced 7-function manipulator arm and many other sensors. On this occasion, its mission had been to capture imagery of trench animals and their habitats. Additionally, it was due to carry out experiments and collect samples of materials. No other ROV at the time was capable of doing such work, so it was a big loss.

Other 10,000 metre ROVs are being created and one of the pioneering concepts of Nereus has been passed on: a light fibre optic tether as opposed to a heavy steel one that was common in other ROVs.

Support systems for ROVs

More complex ROVs require large support teams and bespoke equipment to help them function. A good example of this is the US NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research’s scientific ROV: Hercules. A cutting-edge work class ROV in its own right (which once mapped the wreck of The Titanic), Hercules is actually part of a family of scientific equipment, also known as a buddy system, that works together to explore the ocean at depths of up to 4,000 metres.

Following the fibre optic tether up from Hercules we find Argus, a tow sled. This is a steel cage packed with equipment to stabilise Hercules. It is also equipped with a downwards facing HD camera and powerful spotlights to give the operators a bird’s eye view of the primary ROV and its immediate surroundings.

Argus is suspended from a cable by the mothership, on which is the control room. This is specially constructed within a shipping container so it can be moved from one boat to another. It houses six staff who are responsible for operating the complete system.

Next to the control room is another shipping container loaded with advanced telecoms equipment. This allows the mission to transmit data and video feeds in real-time to a shore-based laboratory. Here, anyone from mission-critical scientists to school students can get involved in a safe environment.

Customised ROVs

Dominion Diving are a leading ROV, diving and marine services contractor based in Canada. Earlier this year they modified one of their light electric ROV’s so that it had the power and functionality of a bigger hydraulic-powered system.

The Cougar XT has a flexible core design that they were able to customise to fulfil specific mission requirements for profiling and running maintenance on a manifold site. They constructed a bigger runner which could house additional tooling such as manipulator and torque tool, added extra channels to control surveying equipment, and a seventh thruster to help with the additional one ton of weight.

This enabled the ROV to survey the site using multi-beam sonar, excavate sand and debris with a pump and operate valves on the manifold. The compact system also displayed highly effective manoeuvrability as it operated in a tight space.

ROV equipment

Developing specialist equipment to be added to ROVs may be just as valid R&D as producing innovative ROVs themselves.

Oceanscan are a UK company with offices in Aberdeen and the OrbisEnergy Centre in East Anglia. They provide marine equipment internationally, including a range of ROVS. One of the most advanced is the SeaBotix LBV300-5 which among other impressive features has a revolutionary crawler skid for manoeuvring on the seabed.

Oceanscan also develop ROV equipment in-house. One example of this is the Oceanscan CP ROV Bottle. This innovative Cathodic Protection device marries a standard CP probe with digital electronics. This allows it to digitise the analogue voltage and send it to the surface via the tether or a data multiplexor. This is a technological advance over conventional CP systems.

Do you work with ROVs?

You should investigate the UK R&D tax credit incentive if your company:

  • Designs or manufactures ROVs.
  • Develops equipment that is fitted to ROVs.
  • Operates ROVs on bespoke projects.

Given the conditions they operate in and the work they do, ROV performance standards are demanding. Therefore, much of the development of standard or one-off ROVs is likely to involve serious R&D. This could well mean that it can qualify for R&D tax credits if the research and development is carried out in the UK.

If you are new to R&D tax credits, or have claimed but would like a second opinion to be sure all your qualifying activity is being included, get in touch with ForrestBrown today. Our award-winning team of chartered tax advisers specialise in optimising claims and as a client of ForrestBrown, you can be confident of a robust claim.

R&D tax credits are typically worth at least tens of thousands of pounds to companies that are pushing the boundaries of science and engineering – and sometimes much more. Companies that successfully claim often use the money to invest in further R&D, hire new staff or help with cash flow. To find out more, give our team a call on 0117 926 9022.