It’s a game changing idea: rather than trying to tool a ROV up to the nines, why not deploy a ‘shuttle’ kitted out with the necessary payload packages cutting time, weight and costs?

Owner and MD of UK-based All Oceans Engineering, Brian Abel explained ROVs have strayed a long way from their original role as simple observation tools, inexorably becoming heavier as everyone pushed for ‘just a little more’ capacity and capability.

But deeper water resulted in a conundrum: “Over the past couple of years we’d been asked a number of times if we could supply our 3000m ROV – a 20cm cube and tether - as a deck-deployed system,” he said. “It’s possible, yes, but there’s not much logic to it, having such a small vehicle on the end of kilometres of cable.”

On top of this came the demand for seabed resource exploration; survey, observation, sampling and recovery: “These days, loose rock samples, biological samples, artefact recovery and even rock coring is wanted. This needs a bigger ROV as the power and forces are simply too large for a small, lightweight unit - but a work class ROV can weigh several tonnes.” Add this kind of weight to a 3km-plus umbilical line means traditional deepwater launch and recovery devices have to be beefed up to the point where they become extremely large and equally expensive to deploy.

At this point the traditional concept took a U-turn. All Oceans realised it was possible to build a system that could deploy a one tonne payload to 6,000m, incorporating the heavy duty sampling and recovery tools plus anything else that may be required, giving rise to the ‘shuttle’ concept.

It will have a similar role to its namesake space transfer system said Mr Abel: “It doesn’t need to swim like a ROV, the shuttle can hang suspended above the seabed for survey work or landed for heavy work; the bottom will accommodate a very high spec sonar... and it can even have a rock corer because it’s big enough to press down.”

He added: “Payload in most if not all cases will include a fly-out ROV ‘eyeball’ that will provide all of the observation needs, showing you if the shuttle is landing in the right spot and videoing the proceedings.”

“Most importantly, we will still have around 750kg of spare payload capacity,” he added. “The idea is that the extra capacity lets the customer kit the device up with whatever it wants to do the job so that one dive is all that is needed. After all it takes a long time to go down and back from 6,000m.”

It’s not demanding either: the total topside power draw comes to about 20kW and the complete package, including LARS, will fit into a standard 20 foot container, the gross weight adding up to a moderate 6 tonnes. “The current ROV systems that can take on this kind of job at best are 40 tonnes, take up more than four times the deck space and need around 200kW to run them... so we are shrinking the package by 75% and the power demand by 90%.”

All of which will help minimise costs in an industry that can no longer support wasted time or effort: “Whether its minerals exploration or salvage, the support ship normally must carry out sonar passes at speed, then when a target is located, down goes an ROV for visual identification and then that’s swapped for heavier equipment. This way you can do it all in one dive, saving double and even triple handling.”

Over many years we have seen a change to the usual iterative loop” he explained. “Engineering firms like ours would design a unit, but until it went into the water you couldn’t really tell whether it would work or not. Someone would have to buy it and try it before the kit even got wet – and then come back and say ‘change this, adapt that’.”

This way, he said, everyone is more certain of their footing: All Oceans understand deep water launch and recovery and mini ROV fly-out systems while the customers know what they want from project-specific payload packages.

An interesting spin off to this is that “as in space, there will be opportunities for other organisations to buy capacity and hitch a lift” – and there’s now media interest in offshore and ocean projects, which could lend another revenue stream .

You never know, salvage operations with a simultaneous documentary might turn salvage crews into overnight reality-TV stars.

By Stevie Knight