Transforming underwater exploration and inspection

Aquabotix’s hybrid vehicle the Integra AUV/ROV
Aquabotix’s hybrid vehicle the Integra AUV/ROV underwater
Aquabotix’s hybrid vehicle the Integra AUV/ROV on the dock
Aquabotix’s hybrid vehicle the Integra AUV/ROV on the dock

According to Ted Curley, Chief Development Officer at Aquabotix, when utilized separately, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) possess distinct capabilities for users across multiple industries

Yet, while both are popular unmanned underwater vehicles, they have significant differences in their design, function and overall use.

AUVs, by their design, operate autonomously. Once programmed, they can move independently, carrying out underwater missions for hours or, in some instances, days. Even though being untethered enables AUVs to have a greater operational radius, they are limited in the sense that they change depths and can only manoeuvre in certain directions.

ROVs, on the other hand, are tethered to the topside electronics where an operator will pilot or “fly” the vehicle using a computer console or controller, either on shore or on a vessel of opportunity. Typically, ROVs need a guiding hand to execute missions, leading to increased cost in manpower and the necessity to be on-site to ensure vehicles are operating properly. Despite these considerations, ROVs are traditionally more manoeuvrable than AUVs, in their design and with the aid of human pilots.

HYBRID AUV/ROV
The evolving demand for underwater exploration and inspection missions ultimately requires a multi-mission vehicle that offers users the best of both automation and control. The solution that fully addresses these needs is a hybrid AUV/ROV, an underwater vehicle capable of handling multiple underwater missions, while also changing the way underwater surveys are performed. For broad range searches, the hybrid can be equipped with side-scan sonar and programmed to conduct grid or linear searches in AUV mode. For a more thorough analysis of underwater conditions, operators can attach the tether and manoeuvre the ROV to capture detailed images using multibeam sonar or high definition video and still images with a camera. The ROV can also be outfitted with a manipulator/grabber arm or water sampling sensors increasing its capability.

The hybrid AUV/ROV is designed to be a single-person deployable, portable vehicle capable of being battery-powered or (in ROV mode) having an AC Power option. The result is a cost-efficient alternative to deploying separate AUVs and ROVs for individualized tasks. All markets – law enforcement, research, environmental assessment, defence and infrastructure included – can benefit from hybrid technology.

In the infrastructure industry, for example, these vehicles are prime for bridge and dam inspections as they can conduct site surveys in AUV mode, and then perform more in-depth inspections in ROV mode of the bridge and dam structures. Hybrids remove potential perils for divers when it comes to the surveying and monitoring of oceanic and inland waterways in harsh environments.

Other key sectors where hybrid AUV/ROVs are positioned to have the greatest impacts include:

*             Defence: The navies of the world continue to make significant investments in unmanned vehicles to address increased underwater threats that often occur in hazardous environments that prove difficult and dangerous for divers. Hybrid vehicles act as a force multiplier and can augment and even replace divers in specific situations including explosive ordinance disposal (EOD), mine countermeasures (MCM), port security and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

*             Oil and gas: As energy producers increasingly look for ways to save money, cut costs and maintain life-of-field, the hybrid AUV/ROV technology will offer ways to reduce the number of assets in the water and manpower resources.

*             Environmental assessment: Without proper technology, aquatic environment monitoring can prove cumbersome. The hybrid AUV/ROV provides a low-cost solution for sophisticated data collection and can be custom-equipped with a wide array of scientific sensors which are displayed in the same screen as the user controls, providing real-time feedback and analysis.

GOING BEYOND THE DIVE While hybrid AUVs/ROVs prove more than capable of exploring the depths of the world’s bodies of water, technological advancements like live remote viewing, live remote control and cloud-based storage promote greater interactivity and connectivity during missions both below and above the sea.

Traditionally, long-term storage, analysis and report generation were left up to end users. Now, the cloud, when properly accessed and utilized by surveyors, has become the future of data collection and storage. The cloud now provides easy access to data, which can be properly archived, managed and viewed in-action during missions. Large data sets can now be safely and easily managed. In addition, users don’t have to be on-site to monitor missions – cloud connectivity brings all crucial data points together in a convenient and easy way, in real-time.

Further, technology is advancing to the point where hybrid AUV/ROVs can be manoeuvred via an easy-to-use intuitive platform accessible from any web-enabled device. Browser-based devices, including computers, phones and iPads, are all it takes to operate hybrid vehicles, without the operator being physically present on-site. This kind of functionality allows users to better monitor what’s always happening, all while sharing data across multiple sites. The need for increased or expensive on-site manpower for underwater operations is reduced considerably.

This method of operation is somewhat similar conceptually to how the world’s most technologically advanced militaries have, for years, operated battlefield aerial drones from safe locations outside the theater of war.

CONCLUSION
With oceans covering 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, they remain largely unexplored from a subsea perspective, making research and data collection challenging in the process. Add the burden of needing two separate types of vehicles – and essentially two separate crews – for different exploration and inspection missions, and you’re presented with a significant barrier to both cost and efficiency. With the hybrid AUV/ROV, you not only have a digital framework for autonomy, but also the ability to quickly take control. This is why the multi-mission designed hybrid AUV/ROV is poised to be a new and valuable tool for the underwater robotics industry.

Ted Curley will explore this topic further in his Oceanology International presentation, The Hybrid AUV/ROV: How a Multi-Mission Vehicle Could Transform Underwater Exploration and Inspection, as part of the Unmanned Vehicles & Vessels Technical Track at Oceanology International 2018, which takes place at London’s ExCel 13-15 March.

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