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Ocean Industry Making Progress With AUVs

James Ferguson
Vice President
International Submarine Engineering Ltd.

In the late 1960s, development of the ROV began, bringing with it a sea change in manís ability to work underwater. After seeing the early navy prototypes, the offshore industry quickly saw the potential huge capital cost savings of replacing manned systems with ROVs; these companies threw their weight behind development. This championship defined the direction and pace of development over the next 25 years. By the mid-1970s, commercial manufacture of ROVs had started, and progress continued unabated through the Ď80s and Ď90s. By then, use of the ROV was widespread in the offshore, naval and scientific sectors. Operating companies were in business worldwide and technical colleges had begun training. The ROV revolution was complete.

In last Decemberís editorial, Fritz Stahr described ROVs as being ďtethered to their human operators, deployed from ships and operated only when there are Ďpeople capable of doing so.Ē This drawback was not missed by the engineers of the 60s, and it prompted the start of work on untethered vehicles. Although accompanied by the promise of independent operation at great range and depth, the economic benefits and savings were not evident and sadly, no industry champion arose. Development continued, but at a snailís pace. It took 15 years for the UUV to drop its tether and become autonomous. By the mid-í90s, not one company was manufacturing sensors designed for AUVs.

Around this time, things changed for the good. Faced with across-the-board demands for more data and data-collection capabilities, planners realized the cost of providing additional ships to these activities would be prohibitive, as would the cost of replacing, rather than retiring, these aging hulls in the coming decades. They had to take a chance on the AUV. And take that chance, they did. With one voice, the ocean industry challenged the AUV to prove itself. The subsea community rose to the occasion at the turn of the century. A new generation of commercially built, pro- peller- and buoyancy-powered AUVs emerged. Sensor companies committed to developing products to meet AUV requirements and AUVs started making a name for themselves. Today, many are used for independent surveys without a ship. Some have completed long-range missions under the polar icecaps. Propelled AUVs oper- ate for weeks, gliders for months.

Whatís important is the independent nature of these operations. It demonstrates that control, reliability and fault tolerance in the vehicles has met the standard for operations in harsh ocean environments. It means that AUVs are finally delivering on the journey that began in 1960s. Users can now begin replacing ships as subsea survey platforms. The full operations can be launched from piers rather than ships. With the size of a shipís crane no longer a limitation, AUVs will grow in size as they operate over greater ranges and for longer durations. The time this will take is a matter for the operators rather than the developers to decide. The baseline designs have been demonstrated. Progress and confidence in these designs can only continue to develop as they are taken to sea and the feedback loop is established with the developer. As this happens, AUVs will fulfill their destiny.

So whatís next? Development of AUVs set the stage for developing intelligent underwater sensors. Thatís happening now. It also spurred research into the autonomous work vehicle. This has not been without barriers. Difficulty has arose in some areas, most notably in fielding vision technology that can quickly recognize a wide range of objects in an unstructured environment. However, help is around the corner, from where we often find it: big industry. The phone companies are working on the same technology for smartphone cameras. All we have to do is adapt it to our needs. So stand by: The underwater robotic revolution is about to begin!

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