BP Touts Microsubs' Potential for Spotting Problems

BP is working with manufacturer Planet Ocean, the Marine Robotics Innovation Centre at the UK's National Oceanography Centre, and the Scottish Association of Marine Science to optimize the microsub technology before starting the first trial in the North Sea in December.

Small, inexpensive autonomous underwater vehicles called microsubs are the next big thing for oil and gas companies, according to BP, which posted a report July 7 about its research on their use to record highly detailed photos and information about the underwater environment.

"We're adapting a microsub to perform environmental surveying that would normally be done at considerable cost using large-scale AUVs or remotely operated vehicles," said Joe Little, technology principal in BP's digital innovation team.

The report says these AUVs are only 50 centimeters long and cost as little as $7,000. BP is working with manufacturer Planet Ocean, the Marine Robotics Innovation Centre at the UK's National Oceanography Centre, and the Scottish Association of Marine Science to optimize the microsub technology before starting the first trial in the North Sea in December. The company will use them to patrol its subsea infrastructure, such as pipelines, to provide an early warning of any potential problem.

"When you have numerous units working intelligently, the speed of work and the volume of data and information you get is very impressive," said Petet Collinson, BP's global environmental response expert and Little's partner in the project. If the trials are successful, BP intends roll out a fleet of microsubs for environmental and operational monitoring and also crisis response planning, as soon as next year.

The report says their miniature size allows them to explore previously inaccessible areas such as shallow water, wrecks, and reefs, and they can be used to pinpoint pipeline corrosion or potential leaks. "There are a lot of different ways we could deploy them: crates on the seabed, platforms, the shoreline, helicopters – we're even looking into dropping them from drones," Little said.

Microsubs have less space for sensors, so the image quality they afford is not as good as with larger machines, but they should more than make up for that in data quantity, the report says. "As microsubs go up and down alongside our pipelines, we won't get high-definition video, but we will get very sensitive hydrocarbon and possible methane readings," Collinson said. "We can tell if there's any hydrocarbon in proximity to our pipeline, consistently and at a phenomenally low cost."

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