Conducting maritime and subsea operations lean crewed or entirely remotely is a problem with many moving parts. Maritime Journal met one company that can lay claim to world dominance in this rapidly emerging field.
Woolston, a suburban centre on the outskirts of Southampton, is an unassuming place. Caught on the ‘wrong’ side of the River Itchen from the relative excitement of the city centre, it boasts more kebab and pizza shops than any small town requires or deserves and is all-too often passed through with little attention by drivers heading towards the Itchen Bridge and Southampton.
Since its last remaining large shipbuilder, Vosper Thornycroft, known at the end as VT Group, shut its doors in 2003 and VT’s large waterside site was sold, Woolston has lacked a substantial maritime employer.
That all changed in 2021 when a generous chunk of the old VT site welcomed its newest resident, Ocean Infinity.
This young company has a huge vision: that the way we use robotics at sea can now be taken several massive steps further. It could come as a surprise to the users of the nearby Lidl that the activities taking place in this giant silver building in Woolston stand a very good chance of changing the way in which seabed and maritime activities are conducted, all over the world, forever.
Ocean Infinity Marine Robotics Expert Dan Hook is under no illusion that this is going to be an easy path.
“Our customers must reduce the personnel requirements of offshore operations for multiple reasons,” he says. “Fewer humans aboard means operations can be conducted with much smaller ships. Every extra body aboard requires a surprisingly large amount of extra space in the shape of galleys, toilets, food and waste storage, and not forgetting all the extra fuel to shunt all that about.
“We are building partially remotely operated 78-metre ships at Ocean Infinity that will be run by a crew of just 16, while performing tasks that would otherwise be performed by a crew of 50. Smaller, and in our case much cleaner, running ships contribute a big CO2 saving, and many of our customers have demanding industry or self-imposed decarbonisation road maps to stick to.
“For other customers, operational efficiency is high on the agenda: operating vessels remotely will, in the long run, allow the efficiency of highly skilled and well-paid personnel, such as ROV pilots, to work across multiple ships and not be stuck on one vessel on one job.
“If there is, for example, a technical breakdown with an ROV offshore, a skilled pilot on a fully manned ‘traditional’ operation might be left twiddling their thumbs for hours or days, but with remote operation in minutes they can immediately be piloting another ROV from a different ship, even in a different ocean.
“There are countless other benefits too, from enabling a better work/life balance for staff by allowing them to perform offshore tasks onshore, to improved safety and faster deployment capabilities.
“The truth is our customers work with us because we can offer a combination of all of the above, and often other aspects we’d not even thought of ourselves, reflecting the steep learning curve we, and this new industry, are on.”
Busting short-term myths
One common concern in the wider economy around automation is its potential to hurt job numbers and opportunities within the industry.
In the short run, at least, this is blatantly incorrect. The strong regulatory frameworks that are being built up around remote vessel operations mean that some roles are initially having to be doubled up.
What is definitely changing is how and where people will work. Sure, the number of people working offshore who physically go offshore will be reduced, but these are often anti-social jobs, inconducive to family life, so not many will mourn their passing.
Remote vessel operations also have the potential to change the currently poor levels of diversity in maritime for the better. The traditional, physical and psychological demands of these jobs change considerably when they are brought ashore. Where in the past, ageing, physically challenged or those wishing to start families or care for relatives would have had to hang up their sea boots for good, now they have more options.
If there’s a single room at Ocean Infinity where most of this magical transformation will be made flesh it’s the Remote Control Centre (RCC).
With the air of a Bond villain’s lair, this huge dark space, nestled in the bowels of the operation, is where the various maritime experts will control the to-ings and fro-ings of diverse operations from cable route surveys to seabed cone penetration testing.
Around the periphery of the room, individual control pods, ‘Bridges’, are each equipped with a (proper marine specification) helmsman’s seat and designed to deliver peerless situational awareness.
They will be home to up to 20 operators at any one time, while more managerial staff, such as vessel captains, will work on more conventional office-type workstations inboard and on a raised dais, from where multiple activities and vessels can be overseen.
The ethos of close collaboration and duty of care has clearly been built into all design aspects, right down to the little padded perches for observers of activities within the pods to sit slightly aft and abeam of the operator, to be able to watch proceedings without creating any distraction or undue pressure.
For our visit in January 2023 the RCC was a fully equipped shell, entirely devoid of people; but things are moving quickly. A full ‘dress rehearsal’ is due to happen soon, and fully remote controlled and monitored lean-crewed vessel operations will start in May.
As Ocean Infinity’s Head of Marine Remote Systems Colin Field pointed out, it’s going to be quite a contrast: “We’ll conduct operations here 24/7/365. So, from how we see it now, it will be a busy hub working constantly around the clock,” he says.
Creating something new
Part of the challenge and excitement for Field is playing such a key role in creating something so new for the industry, and not just in terms of the technology.
At the time of writing, Field admitted there was even still some conjecture at Ocean Infinity around what it will actually feel like to work in this RCC and who would actually be best to employ.
“While we obviously need people with certain competencies and in many cases seagoing qualifications to meet our legal obligations, nobody has built anything like this before, so it’s not like we can take a look at what everyone else is doing,” he said.
“Do we employ young gamers with peerless ability to evaluate multiple streams of information coming from multiple screens at the same time?
“Or do we go for huge sea-time and experience as our first requisite? Industries such as air traffic control recruit to a very tight set of parameters and consequently have a very high rejection rate; but they have been recruiting for long enough to have a very clear idea of who they want and require a narrower set of skills.
“Common sense dictates that we’ll start with a mix of all sorts of skill sets and backgrounds, and operating worldwide as we will from the start, diversity in all aspects from gender to age to ethnicity will matter more to us than most other employers.”
The discussions still taking place about staffing just a few months before ‘going live’ tell a larger story: one about the costs of being the first in not just new technologies, but in many respects building a whole new industry.
“Being first to a market like this is a fairly high risk but potentially high reward strategy,” said Dan Hook. “Consider just one aspect – the cost of lobbying and liaising with lawmakers in individual maritime territories.
“Often, even now, when we want to perform a remote controlled vessel operation, the relevant maritime authority has no framework in place with which to advise us or give the go-ahead. Sometimes, regrettably, it’s just easier for them to say ‘no’.
“We have a team here whose main remit is to monitor developments, take part in the highest level discussions and generally, wherever possible, ‘be in the room’ when discussions around maritime remote control, robotics and autonomy are taking place. The second company to follow us into this space will be knocking on considerably fewer closed doors but they won’t have our first-to-market status.”
The company worked out recently that it had more than a kilometre’s worth of vessels at its disposal, working in a diverse range of industries from oil and gas to marine renewables, defence and interconnectors.
At the moment, the company is already conducting fully manned activities including survey and deep water search, often deploying a fleet of Kongsberg Hugin vehicles from chartered vessels, that will be replaced in the next year by the newbuilding Ocean Infinity Armada fleet. Of these 78m lean-crewed vessels, built by VARD in Vietnam, two have been delivered and the remaining six are due to arrive this year.
Following closely on their heels will be a fleet of six 86m ships due to commence build in 2024, again at VARD, with delivery for the first ships due early 2025. All the vessels that Ocean Infinity is commissioning are future-proofed, not merely in terms of operational tweaks but also fuel type. Most will launch as diesel electric hybrids, but all will have large empty spaces aboard for future fuel provision, whether that future fuel be methanol, ammonia, straight hydrogen or a range of these.
In terms of the largest entirely uncrewed vessels on the fleet, five 36m boats (currently in build) will be as big as the company would like to talk about going at the moment.
Having seen the level at which Ocean Infinity is working, it will take quite a competitor company to operate in this space, and “those who would like the security of waiting for a harmonised worldwide regulatory framework to exist will wait a decade or more before they can even get started,” said Field.
Certain competitors are overlapping bits of Ocean Infinity’s areas of expertise by launching USVs from unmanned small craft or operating vessels such as ferries from remote control centres.
However, in terms of the swathe of capabilities that Ocean Infinity can offer: surface to subsea, 8m to 86m surface –craft, subsea inspection and intervention, uncrewed and lean crewed, the closest competitor according to Dan Hook would be the US Navy – “but they’ve not got much interest in offshore renewables!”
By Jake Frith