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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
09 November 2022
Researchers use autonomous submarine to survey oil fields

NOC's ALR, 'Boaty McBoatface' | Credit: National Oceanography Centre

Researchers use autonomous submarine to survey oil fields

Researchers from the University of Southampton have worked with the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) using high-resolution camera-equipped autonomous underwater vehicles, to better understand end-of-life oil fields in the North Sea.

The robotic submarine, known as Boaty McBoatface, surveyed areas surrounding decommissioned oil and gas structures off the coast of Shetland, collecting data. It is hoped that it can pave the way for future marine surveys.  

The Autosub Long Range (ALR) captured high-quality colour images, using a 3D mapping system. Boaty McBoatface carried out two missions over 21 days, covering 1013km, replacing a large survey vessel that would normally survey end-of-life oil and gas fields. The ALR, which was tracked via satellite, was launched and retrieved at the shore and was powered with rechargeable batteries that used the equivalent energy as two litres of fuel.  

Blair Thornton, professor of marine autonomy, said: “Our focus was on how to monitor these types of infrastructures in more effective, environmentally friendly and scalable ways.”

“We were able to gather high quality data that tells us previously unknown things about the marine environment using a very novel approach.”

Adrian Bodenmann, a researcher on the project, said: “Even though we were many 1,000 km away in our Boldrewood offices in Southampton, we could keep track of the quality of data being gathered using algorithms embedded onboard BioCam, and know of any risks or hazards to the vehicle mission.  

“We worked together with the team at NOC and updated mission parameters when needed while the robot was still at the sites. It was this rapid remote awareness of the data that was the key to making the surveys a success.”

Project lead for AT-SEA, Dr Daniel Jones from NOC, said: “Through the success of the AT-SEA mission, we have demonstrated how this leading robotic technology from NOC could be used worldwide to support crucial ocean monitoring, whilst drastically reducing carbon emissions.”

“Autonomous submarines offer many advantages over current approaches; improving the quality and quantity of environmental information while cutting the cost and environmental impact for a survey ship and its crew.”

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