For those who follow energy matters in the media, the often impassioned dialogue regarding generating energy typically breaks people into two camps. There are those who promote fossil fuel production, and those who favor green energy. Those who favor green energy are sometimes zealous in their arguments that the United States should eliminate fossil fuel dependence and rely only on green energy.
This is a noble goal, but one that will take time to instantiate.
As this debate rages, 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 suspected 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.
The strategic implications of the United States transition from energy dependence, to energy independence, to becoming a net oil and gas exporter, are being felt worldwide and are being accelerated by the war in Ukraine.
While some saw this sea change coming, most did not, and the community of nations is still coming to grips with what this will mean to the energy market over the next several decades.
While much of the reporting regarding America’s increased energy production has focused on fracking – which has opened up billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas to production and transformed the global energy sector in a matter of a few years – it is the offshore oil and gas industry that still provides a huge amount of United States’ energy.
According to Forbes Magazine, 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.
This massive production effort is sustained by the hundreds of U.S. 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. There is little question that the United States intends to accelerate its harvesting of oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico as part of its America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.
However, environmental concerns – impelled by major events such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico – have served as a brake on U.S. offshore drilling.
And it is worth noting that the second largest marine oil spill in history, the Ixtoc 1 spill, also occurred in the Gulf of Mexico.
These – and other industry disasters – have resulted in ongoing environmental activism that has given some second thoughts about the viability of continuing to drill for oil and gas offshore.
Addressing these environmental worries has been a challenge for the oil and gas industry.
And while offshore oil and gas companies have been proactive in ensuring the safety and viability of their 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) of various types to perform these inspections. This methodology 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.
Industry has proposed technology-enabled solutions that can provide faster and more thorough inspections of these enormously expensive platforms and insure against not only catastrophic disasters like Deepwater Horizon, but also more common issues like wear and tear of underwater components – to say nothing of potential sabotage of these oil and gas rigs by terrorists or environmental activists.
And much like an iceberg, what the eye can see above the water when viewing an oil or gas rig is only part of the story.
There is a tremendous amount of the infrastructure that is below the surface and unseen.
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 many more are planned.
This is causing a spike in construction of offshore wind farms due, in large part, to recent federal legislation as well as favorable tax breaks for those who construct and operate these wind farms.
Sadly, there has been little dialogue as to how to protect these expensive offshore wind farms, and like their “old” energy counterparts – oil rigs – they are, and will remain, highly vulnerable.
It is clear that new unmanned surface vehicle or USV technologies can provide solutions to aid the process of enhanced security in this critical domain.
For example, 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 (USVs) built on a catamaran hull.
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 in both near-shore and open-ocean operations, 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-foot) USV has already been equipped and tested with a wide variety of surface and below-surface sensors such as the SeaFLIR-230 Gyro-stabilized High Definition EO/IR zoom camera with laser tracking, FLIR M232 thermal camera, Teledyne RESON T20 high resolution multi-beam sonar, Teledyne BlueView M900 single-beam echo-sounder and Norbit iWBMS STX multi-beam sonar, among others.
Additionally, MARTAC has fielded T24 (24-foot) and T38 (38-foot) “Devil Ray” boats, capable of carrying all the same sensors, with even more capabilities than the MANTAS. For the offshore oil rig and wind farm inspections, the Devil Ray will be the best alternative. The MANTAS T12 is Li-Ion battery powered and would need recovery and recharge on at least a daily basis, but the Devil Ray, with its diesel engines, can stay underway for days and weeks, depending on speed and mission preferences.
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, valves and sensors, as well as offshore wind farms, while dramatically decreasing the need for human divers.
Under this concept, a Devil Ray USV would be controlled by one operator in the rig command center or offshore wind farm command center. This inspection of components of oil rigs, pipelines, or offshore wind farms can be part of scheduled, routine checks, or be done on-demand to investigate something out of the ordinary discovered by watchstanders.
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 could 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, which would include area security, external rig or offshore wind farm structure investigation and surface contact monitoring, among other missions that a Devil Ray USV is ideally suited for, the Devil Ray, which is already equipped with a Furuno DRS4D-NXT Doppler Radar and AIS, could be equipped with a SeaFLIR 280-HDEP Multi-Spectral Surveillance System at the high end, 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 USV 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, or embedded petroleum products in the immediate vicinity of the rig.
The T24 and T38 have the inherent capability and sensor-swap modularity, enabling them to perform a variety of missions in inspecting these valuable – and vulnerable – offshore resources. This sensor swap capability is not “hypothetical,” but is something that has been demonstrated in numerous Navy and Marine Corps exercises, experiments and demonstrations, one as recently as Digital Horizon 2022 this month, conducted in the Arabian Gulf.
Depending on the mission, operators can control any of the Devil Ray USVs 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. Most significantly, the video and sonar imaging from the MANTAS or Devil Ray can be sent directly to operators in real-time, thereby providing immediate notification of what the USV discovers above or below the water surface, thus enabling operators and management to make time-sensitive decisions.
Anticipating near-term demand from the offshore oil and gas and offshore wind farms industries, MARTAC is developing concepts 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, can switch to remote manual control, 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. Clearly, this CONOPS will secure the integrity of the energy platform, while also substantially reducing the false alarms generated of other methods. Conversely, if the investigation does not reveal an issue, the Devil Ray can return to its autonomous mission profile that the operator had previously programmed for the USV.
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, on a smaller scale, 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.
Oil and gas rigs, as well as offshore wind farm towers, while not necessarily bunched together, in some areas are close enough for numerous assets to share a single Devil Ray. With a cruise speed of 25-40 knots, burst speeds of up to 80 knots, and a cruise radius of 60-plus nautical miles, several offshore assets can share one Devil Ray USV. This scheme can be particularly valuable as it could well result in sharing best-practices among various oil and gas companies and offshore wind farm operators where, if a USV discovers that a component on one asset is in need of repair or replacement, operators can perform more frequent inspections of that component on other oil rigs or wind farms.
The enormous investment America’s energy companies have made – and will continue to make – in our offshore oil and gas rigs and offshore wind farms is one that these companies must protect against failure, sabotage, or other hazards. Protecting these expensive and vulnerable energy assets is a first order priority for the industry and one that is increasingly expensive. Current means of inspecting these rigs are slow, costly and hazardous. Employing commercial-off-the-shelf USVs like the Devil Ray that can be rapidly reconfigured with a diverse range of sensors can enhance the ability to deliver energy to America and the world.
This is not just a win-win for the energy industry, but a national security priority.
Featured Photo: A Devil Ray is seen operating with other assets in the IMEX exercise held in Bahrain earlier this year.
According to CENTCOM: “International Maritime Exercise (IMX) 2022, an 18-day biennial naval training event, was led by U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. It combined with annual exercise Cutlass Express (CE) led by U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa (NAVEUR-NAVAF) in East African coastal regions and the West Indian Ocean…
“IMX/CE 2022 incorporated training operations on mine countermeasures; visit, board, search, and seizure; and mass casualty response, among others. The exercise established a combined task force to incorporate unmanned systems and artificial intelligence.”
George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator whose thirty years of active duty culminated in fourteen years of consecutive service as executive officer, commanding officer, commodore, and chief of staff.
His last operational assignment spanned five years as a carrier strike group chief of staff embarked in the USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln.
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