Leveraging Solutions From Other Industries

Manuel Parente,
CTO, Abyssal Technology

The ocean covers more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and is a vital source of food, energy, transport and scientific discovery—yet its vast majority is unexplored. For industries ranging from oil and gas to marine renewables to biotechnology—and even those not traditionally focused on the ocean—the ocean represents huge untapped potential.

As we venture to deeper and more remote seas, safety for humans, marine life and the environment are critical factors. As companies ramp up oceanic activity in both known and unexplored areas, it is vital to look beyond our own industries to stay on top of technological trends and best practices that we can learn from and adopt for greater efficiency and safety at sea.

A major part of subsea operations across industries is the use of ROVs to overcome the limitations of human divers. But ROVs come with management difficulties. ROV pilots regularly face visibility challenges, which can slow down an operation, meaning additional costs for labor and support as timelines increase, plus greater risk. In the last several years, we have begun to see technological innovation in ROV operations coming from an unlikely place: the video game world.

Video games are designed and built on top of a game engine technology platform, which enables real-time visualization to track players and change their surroundings as they move through dynamic virtual environments. Several years ago, we discovered that by combining game engine technology with a robust geographic information system (GIS), real-time visualization power can be leveraged to monitor ROVs or anything else with a tracking beacon and to deploy an augmented reality (AR) overlay on the pilot’s video feed to continue with an operation uninterrupted.

We have been using Unreal Engine, a video game development tool powerful and flexible enough for us to continually adapt to the needs of our clients across the subsea oil and gas industry. Pilots can track their ROVs with submillimeter accuracy and, through the gathering and processing of live data from the ROV, can receive a contextualized, real-time picture of the ROV’s undersea environment, even when visibility is compromised. This benefits not just the ROV pilot; stakeholders at every stage, from design to construction and operation, can get a precise view of what is happening in real time in order to act better and faster, or get a realistic preview of what could happen in order to anticipate issues and speed up development projects. Teams can study the data captured to learn lessons that can be applied to future operations.

This untraditional technology has huge implications for safety and efficiency in ocean industries. Real-time location tracking and visualization means that entire teams can be moved from offshore to onshore and a project can be managed remotely. This improves safety and reduces costs for vessel maintenance and transport. The ability to stay onshore also helps jobs in our industries remain more competitive. For the oil and gas industry in particular, as oil prices keep dropping, having lower operational costs can help turn negative returns into positive returns and get previously nonviable projects going. Ultimately, across ocean industries, being offshore is where the greatest risks and costs lie. Technology that enables us to move more of the operation onshore is a huge benefit.

As the tech world makes strides in fields such as cloud computing, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, those of us working in ocean-based fields should continue to think outside the box for how these trends will revolutionize our operations. No doubt there is more untapped potential out there if we look for it—just like there is much more to discover in our largely unexplored ocean.