North East's subsea technology exploring great depths

Aranda Rahbarkouhi looks at the North East's growing importance as a manufacturer of subsea technology which is helping engineers extract oil

A DeepOcean ROV performing inspection works
A DeepOcean ROV performing inspection works

We've discovered Mars may have supported life, Earth’s closest twin planet and even found extraterrestrial cosmic rays, but as exploration heads into deep waters, engineers are more reliant than ever on new technology to help recover oil.

A survey of Subsea UK members has revealed that subsea technology, specifically inspection, repair and maintenance, are among the fastest-growing segments in the sector – and the North East is a key player.

George Rafferty, chief executive of NOF Energy, said: “The subsea oil and gas sector provides immense opportunities on a worldwide scale for business here in the North East of England. With an increasing amount of oil and gas being found in deeper water, the region’s subsea supply chain has the technologies, skills and experience to capitalise on the opportunities this presents.

“Companies such as IHC, GE Wellstream, Duco, SMD and BEL Valves are world-leaders in subsea technology and so we have a very strong supply chain here in the North East.”

With the average depth of the world’s ocean at 3,814m, technology such as remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) manufactured here in the North East need to continue to evolve to remain a key player in the industry. They have to make the impossible possible, withstanding dark and freezing temperatures as well as crushing weights, equivalent of a bus-load of people bearing down on them.

Used to connect, disconnect and install offshore equipment across the globe, some of the most technologically advanced ROV machines are being manufactured in the North East.

Ranging in size from a small engine to a large van, these robots service oil rigs and underwater pipelines, lift vast loads, as well as being equipped with cameras, dual channel HD video and 3D video options.

Attached to ships by umbilical cables and controlled by operators onboard, the technology captures footage and photographs of the marine environment which can prove invaluable.

BP used ROVs to collect videos of the leaking well after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Here in the North East, firms such as Soil Machine Dynamics in Wallsend, have supplied customers globally with ROVs and seabed trenching machines. Meanwhile, PDL Group, in Hexham, is involved in subsea platforms and technologies, and IHC Engineering Business in Stocksfield is also at the cutting edge of new technology.

County-Durham-based DeepOcean is also leading the way in the subsea technology sector with its ROV fleet. The backbone of that is the HIROV 3000, Installer and Supporter type ROV systems which carry survey, inspection and construction support tooling and sensors.

Conrad Guyatt, DeepOcean UK’s engineering manager, said: “ROVs are key in the oil extraction process and future recovery of untapped reserves. They are used in all aspects of the field life cycle from initial exploration, through field development, operational lifetime, all the way to decommissioning. The tasks are numerous from survey and sampling, installation and construction, maintenance and repair, observation, trenching, etc. Basically anything that a human can do with a tool (be it anything from a spanner to a large excavator) on dry land, that they also do in shallow water while diving, an ROV can do in the deep subsea.”

So what is the deepest an ROV can go at the moment and how is the technology advancing?

Mr Guyatt added: “The deepest ROVs can go to are depths in excess of 7,000m which means almost everywhere around the globe is accessible now. That said, the work-class ROVs that DOUK currently operate have a maximum depth in the order of 3,000m to 4,000m. As such, technology advances are now not so much in terms of achieving deeper depths, but being able to perform more intricate tasks, to higher levels of precision, as well as being able to work in higher environmental limits (launch and recovery through the waves being one of the key challenges here). Challenges also lie in the improvement in positional control and dexterity, as well as increasing operability year round in all areas of the world.”

Increasing water depth has piled on the pressure for subsea inspection, repair and maintenance firms in terms of finding and repairings leaks - especially at depths of 3,000m.

And the Oil & Gas UK’s Economic Report 2013 notes that companies are now adopting a more ‘risk averse’ attitude to operations since the Macondo incident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Around £1bn was spent on asset integrity work alone in 2012.

Mr Guyatt said: “With any hydraulic system deployed subsea there is an inherent risk to the environment as a result of system leaks. While historically such systems have always used mineral oil (with its associated marine life incompatibility), DOUK are now using biodegradable oils which if they do become inadvertently released form no hazard to the ecosystem. That said, system design and component reliability is also improving all of the time such that any leaks at all are minimised as far as possible.”

Selina Stead, a professor of Marine Governance and Environmental Science at Newcastle University said that better partnerships between industry and researchers are still needed to look at the future environmental impact on deep-water communities.

Prof Stead, who has just been appointed chair of the Marine Scotland Science Advisory Board, said: “The problem is there is a lack of historical data on the environmental impact of deep-water communities. We need to find a balance to create healthy seas and good working practice. Better partnerships are the way forward. Here in Newcastle we do have a good working relationship with the offshore industry, but we are always looking at making them better.”

And, of course, bad weather on the surface and surging currents on the sea bed make the world of ROVs a challenging one.

As Jake Tompkins, managing director of another specialist, Darlington-based Modus Seabed Intervention, said: “The requirements of the offshore industries demand innovative, technology-led solutions.”

That’s a challenge that companies all over the North East are rising to.

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