Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Protecting Offshore Energy Sources via USV

April 28, 2023

Photo courtesy Mr. Dave Meron

When most people discuss energy sources such as fossil fuel and green energy, it is from an “either-or” perspective. Some favor the former while others advocate for the latter. However, what is often lost in the arguments on both sides is that regardless of the type of energy being extracted or generated, those platforms that are offshore, especially oil rigs, oil and gas pipelines, and wind farms, are incredibly vulnerable to anyone who wants to attack these sources in wartime, or just to make a political statement.

One need look no further than the sabotage of Nord Stream gas pipelines that run from Russia to Europe under the Baltic Sea to understand the vulnerability of sea-based energy sources. Thus, the fossil fuel industry and the green energy industry do have one area in common – the need to protect their offshore platforms.

While the exigencies of climate change have led to major strides in the development and fielding of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and others, for the foreseeable future, the world’s energy needs will continue to be met primarily by oil and natural gas. Offshore energy production has been increasing over the past decade and now stands at over two-and-one-half million barrels of oil and almost three trillion cubic feet of gas a day.

For the United States, this massive production effort is sustained by hundreds of offshore drilling rigs, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico. According to Forbes Magazine, the Department of the Interior has opened up 25 regions in the outer continental shelf to oil and gas exploration. However, environmental concerns – impelled by major events such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico – have served as a brake on U.S. offshore drilling.

While offshore oil and gas companies have been proactive in ensuring the safety of their offshore platforms, more remains to be done. Using current technology, this is dull, dirty and dangerous work that impedes comprehensive inspections of these production rigs. Today, platform operators depend on divers and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to perform these inspections. This is good as far as it goes, but ROVs have a limited field of view, and putting divers in the water always involves substantial risk and increasingly high cost.  

On the “green” side of the equation, offshore wind farms have seen explosive growth, and predictions of more wind farms in littoral waters point to exponential growth for this industry. Several offshore wind farms are in operation now, and more are planned. Sadly, there has been little dialogue as to how to protect these expensive offshore wind farms, and they remain highly vulnerable.

Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc. (MARTAC), a Florida-based manufacturer of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), has fielded a family of low-cost, rugged and adaptable MANTAS and Devil Ray unmanned surface vehicles.  Part of the attraction of using a USV such as MANTAS or Devil Ray to inspect offshore oil and gas platforms, pipelines and offshore wind farms is that these unmanned surface vehicles have seen extensive use in military exercises, experiments and demonstrations, as well as hundreds of hours of use in a number of civilian missions ranging from commercial canal and dam hydrography, to commercial power plant inspections, to port and harbor security.

The MANTAS T12 (12-ft.) USV has been equipped and tested with a wide variety of surface and below-surface sensors. Additionally, MARTAC has fielded T38 (38-foot) “Devil Ray” USV, capable of carrying even more sensors.  This off-the-shelf technology can be used today to effect faster and more complete inspections of offshore oil/gas platforms along with their surrounding bottom mounted pipelines, as well as offshore wind farms, while dramatically decreasing the need for human divers.

Photo courtesy Mr. Dave Meron

Three primary missions where those responsible for oil rigs, pipelines, or offshore wind farms would utilize this USV concept include:

  1. For underwater imaging, the Devil Ray can be equipped with Norbit iWBMS STX multi-beam sonar, a forward-looking or side-scan sonar, or any of many other commercial-off-the-shelf underwater sensors.
  2. For surface investigation the Devil Ray, which is already equipped with a Furuno DRS4D-NXT Doppler Radar and AIS, could also carry a SeaFLIR 280-HDEP Multi-Spectral Surveillance System, or alternately, the simpler FLIR M400, M500 or M364C-LR EO/Thermal cameras.
  3. Since one of the early indicators of material failure of oil rig components involves oil and other material from the rig seeping into the surrounding water, the Devil Ray can be equipped with water-monitoring sensors to include Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers (ADCP), Current-Temperature Depth (CTD) sensors, flourometers and others to detect changes in the water quality.

Depending on the mission, operators can control the Devil Ray remotely and direct its mission manually, or use the USV in an autonomous or semi-autonomous mode to search along a pre-determined course through the use of pre-programmed waypoints. The video and sonar imaging from the MANTAS or Devil Ray can be sent directly to operators in real-time.

MARTAC has developed a concept of operations (CONOPS) for how Devil Ray would be used to help ensure security of these energy resources. For example, an operator might have a Devil Ray on patrol on a predictable pattern inspecting the asset above and below water. If the USV discovers an anomaly and links the video back in real-time, the operator will be alerted and can command the Devil Ray to linger in a particular area for more granular analysis using its integrated radar, camera and sonar sensor suite. If this investigation uncovers an area of concern, then a diver can be deployed to make a repair.

The same USV technology that is poised to assist the oil and gas and offshore wind farm industries is already being used to inspect critical infrastructure such harbors, ports, inland waterways, dams, levees, canals, bridges and other infrastructure that cannot be safely or effectively inspected by humans. For example, a MANTAS T12 USV was used to conduct inspections of the Keokuk dam and energy center, the Bagnell energy center, the Elkhart hydro dam, the Central Arizona Project canal and other infrastructure.

The enormous investment that energy companies have made – and will continue to make – in offshore oil and gas rigs and offshore wind farms is one that these businesses must protect against failure, sabotage, or other hazards. Current means of inspecting these rigs are slow, costly and hazardous. 

Employing commercial-off-the-shelf USVs like the Devil Ray can enhance the ability to deliver energy to the world.

About the Author

George Galdorisi is a retired naval aviator. He enjoys writing, especially speculative fiction about the future of warfare. He is the author of fifteen books, including four New York Times bestsellers. The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author. Reference to any specific commercial companies, products, process, or service does not imply its endorsement by the Department of Defense or Department of the Navy.

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