By Trent Jacobs, Helix ESG
Working thousands of feet below the ocean waves, in bone chilling temperatures and crushing pressures, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are the “swimming wrenches” that make deepwater oil and gas production possible. Often pictured with a steady hand upon the joystick and staring into a multiplex of monitors, ROV pilots are less known for the countless hours spent keeping their mechanical submarines alive and able to perform.
For more than 50 years ROVs have played an increasingly important role in the offshore industry to become responsible for everything from routine maintenance and inspection work to heavy-duty subsea construction. The vast majority of work class ROVs work on oil and gas extraction. Helix ESG’s Canyon Offshore subsea ROV and construction unit operates a fleet of 45 work-class ROVs, of which only 600 exist worldwide, that can complete any number of different tasks at depths exceeding 10,000 feet. Other more specially designed ROVs are used to drill into pipelines, take core samples, cut through dense rock or seamlessly bury pipelines under the seabed.
“Just about every rig, every survey vessel and every support vessel has an ROV on it,” said Canyon ROV Supervisor Bert Miller. “Just about everywhere that you’re going to find oil and gas, you’re also going to find ROVs working to get it out.”
Miller and Remote Technology Specialist Gordon Marshall have each been working with ROVs for nearly 25 years. When they’re not piloting the underwater robots, or flying as it is known in ROV-speak, they are hard at work inside their portable control room working out technical hiccups or updating an ROV’s computer system to handle new hardware like HD cameras, which will give clients the clearest possible images of the work being done deep below.
Unlike commercial airplane pilots, commercial ROV pilots are responsible for much of their own maintenance work. As Marshall puts it, “There’s always something you can be doing to maintain the system so we’re pretty much working on the ROVs to keep them in top working-condition all the time.”
Much progress has been made since the days when Miller and Marshall began working on ROVs in the 1980s. At that time ROVs played a limited role because they were only useful down to 600 feet. The first ROV pilots also had to navigate the dark and murky depths using a black-and-white video feed sent via a coaxial cable as opposed to today’s crystal clear images delivered through the fiber-optic cables wrapped inside the ROV’s tether, or umbilical.
The umbilical also delivers power and transmits a bevy of other crucial information and directional commands back to the state-of-the-art control station onboard the project vessel.
“Back in the old days if we wanted to follow the ROV from the surface then we’d have to tie a buoy to it,” said Miller. “We were the winch too. There was one ROV pilot and then you had five other guys pulling the tether in and out of the water. “
Over the past three decades, dynamic positioning, GPS and tether management systems (devices that house and deliver the ROV to its working depth), have greatly increased the performance potential of ROVs. These technologies have also made life a little easier for the crews who operate the multi-million dollar machines. Modern vessels are also equipped with hydraulic winches and cranes to lower and lift the ROVs, which can weigh more than 10,000lbs (4,900kg). The increasing complexity of modern ROV systems means that on any given day the crews responsible for them must do the job of several different professions in addition to completing their subsea tasks on a wellhead or a production platform.
Among other things, they are expected to be qualified seamen, hydraulics experts, pipe benders and skilled computer and electronic technicians. Touching on some of the less glamorous duties involved with ROV operations Miller explained, “Most people assume we just do one thing: fly the ROVs. But when it comes to ROVs, maybe you’ll start the morning off by fixing a fiber optic cable and by the afternoon you’re tearing apart the winch and getting covered in oil. You really have to learn to be a jack of all trades in this business.”
Technological leaps in computers and robotics have made ROVs among the most sophisticated machines ever designed, but every new ability and specification brings higher expectations than before. During the response to BP’s Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico during summer 2010 up to nine ROVs were working at the spill site, requiring extreme discipline and skill from the pilots to conduct the unprecedented coordination effort without incident. While monitoring the damaged well and completing various containment exercises one of Canyon’s ROVs spent a staggering 26 straight days in the water before coming up for maintenance.
Aside from the challenge of keeping the ROVs in the water and working for as long as they can, the ROV sector faces a delicate balancing act when training new ROV pilots. While clients often demand the most qualified ROV crews to complete various projects, on the job training is crucial for new ROV pilots like Daniel Wheeler, a former U.S. Navy electronic technician who’s been with Canyon for little over a year. Wheeler is gaining valuable flying time every time he heads offshore and already knows the impetus for ROV pilots is to get the job done right, and on time.
“You’re always learning something new on this job and you have to be ready for anything because something that’s not supposed to break will break on the ROV and you have to know how to deal with it and then fix it,” he said. “One little movement on the joystick can move the ROV really far off course but technically speaking, flying isn’t that difficult. Although, at times it’s very stressful when you know how much the equipment you’re dealing with costs and how far one mistake can set everyone back.”
New pilots like Wheeler represent the next generation of ROV pilots who have joined a unique class of oilmen that once only ranked in the low hundreds. Now that community of underwater pilots is several thousand strong and is rapidly growing larger every year right along with the expanding deep-sea oil industry.
Via Helix ESG