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Under the sea

The promise of autonomous subsea vehicles

The quest to learn more about our ocean parallels the explorative efforts in outer space. It is no coincidence, then, that we are finding new ways to go where no one has gone before under our seas. With digital technologies changing the marine industry, a shift toward autonomous vehicles has begun and they are beginning to prove their worth.

Jacques Cousteau depicted his undersea exploration science as “a curious man looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what’s going on.” Until now, subsea vehicles have only allowed us to see glimpses through that keyhole. With over 80 percent of the ocean floor still unmapped, we have used these vehicles to look at the ocean but not interact with it. Today, with advances in technology, autonomous subsea vehicles will allow humans to open that door and interact with the sea. The challenge is to incorporate technological advances, so autonomous vehicles promise to conduct research and inspection continues to grow.

Autonomous subsea vehicles are the future

Currently in the subsea environment, divers and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) perform inspections, repairs, and maintenance. However, divers are not always able to conduct these inspections due to weather or sea conditions. In such cases, ROVs are   used to inspect outboard equipment and vessel bottoms. Because ship bottoms and sea platforms need periodic inspection and maintenance, subsea vehicles, with the aid of advances in video imagery technology, are a viable and safer option to diver inspection. In the longer term, these operations will be unsustainable due to costs. Autonomous subsea vehicles utilizing digital technologies could prove to be a more innovative and effective approach.

Autonomous vehicles are being trialed for use in conjunction with ROVs to go into waters too dangerous for humans without special equipment.  Going deeper,  offshore gas and oil platforms are supported by underwater foundations that need frequent inspection just like ship hulls. The environments they are in can be even more inhospitable to humans, making autonomous vehicles ideal for the job. Far below the depth limit of human divers, ocean floor autonomous subsea vehicles   have the potential to be gamechangers for the underwater cables and drilling industries. As researchers find ways to send autonomous vehicles   to these depths, it will mean a reduction in both cost and time for operators and the ships that would have to stay on the surface to accompany ROVs.

Staying below water

Below the surface, the future of autonomous   subsea vehicles looks bright. For decades, ROVs have developed as a means to inspect and survey the ocean floor. On the horizon, automation can offer extended time below the surface   and the possibility for the vehicle to react to sensory data. Autonomous subsea vehicles may find damage and conduct repairs  on their own . This is safer and will eventually be cheaper but the challenge is to create the support systems. Technologies across industries are helping make progress.

Technological advances ahead

Advancements in battery technology are providing automated subsea vehicles with the ability to conduct lengthier explorations, inspections, and maintenance. Some can even provide over 30 hours of undersea time. 3D-printed components are also allowing for advanced design concepts to become realities. Even AI is changing what these vehicles can do.

The possibility of an AI subsea vehicle dropped in the ocean and left on its own to inspect or repair an undersea structure within a few days or weeks is still a bit far off. But what researchers are already getting AI to do is process the enormous amount of information a subsea vehicle collects. Some subsea vehicles collect over 150,000 images from a single dive. As the vehicle scans structures and explores the depths, AI could be used to analyze that data to quickly find where repairs are needed.

The future of automated subsea vehicles may be much more than just commercial use. Their ability to dive into worlds humans can’t will help increase our understanding of the unknown.