The Great Lakes Water Studies Institute’s Role in the ROV Community

By Steve Guglielmo and Hans VanSumeren

Each year the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College hosts a hands-on camp devoted to equipment like ROVs, AUVs, sonar and much more. UNDERWATER Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Hans VanSumeren, Director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, about that program and the rise in demand for ROVs across the industry.

Underwater Magazine: How did you become involved with the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan?

Hans VanSumeren: We’re located in Traver City, Michigan, on the shores of Lake Michigan of the Great Lakes. I grew up here, this is home for me. I studies Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at the University of Michigan and actually became the first ROV pilot for the school in 1994 when we acquired what was then a medium-duty research vehicle. It was the first on the Great Lakes. And I used that vehicle throughout all of the Great Lakes and U.S. Coastal Oceans on a number of different projects. That really helped me build out both an ROV Survey Field Operation mentality but all based around research, primarily. And so, I spent about 20 years down there and then almost 11 years ago, I came here and an opportunity came up to lead the institute at NMC. I was lucky enough to secure that opportunity, to come home and also build something unique. The first things that we tried to do here were create more opportunities for students in areas of water and marine applications. Our school is already home to a Great Lakes maritime academy which has been in operation for 51 years and we’re the only fresh water maritime academy in the U.S. That’s a very powerful program for preparing students to either be licensed engineers or pilots for both ocean-going and Great Lakes vessels. It was a natural for us to build out our marine opportunities. That started with degrees in Fresh Water Studies and Fresh Water Science but quickly built into the marine technology world because that was where my background was. We got our first ROV approximately eight years ago. We had been borrowing ROVs from other collaborations that I had been part of for a long time. We started training in mapping and inspection underwater using both the ROV and acoustics and employers started calling and saying, “I understand you have a program in marine technology and we’re really interested in your graduates.” I had to ask, what is it that you’re looking for? I talked to many people and I got an idea of what the industry perspective was and that’s how we built this program. That’s how the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute really got involved in ROV and data and mapping and inspection in the marine environment.

UW: Within ADCI there is a mix of professions. There are individual divers and also companies who manufacture and distribute ROVs. From a research perspective, what are some of the advantages of using an ROV pilot and a vessel, as opposed to having an individual diver explore?

HVS: I think we have worked with plenty of divers over the years on a research perspective, but the vehicle has always been a tool. The tool can support the operation many ways. It can provide support to people already under waters in the diving community. It can support through the addition of sensor packages on the vehicle. And they can do work under water, depending on the size of the vehicle. The ROV, in a science or research perspective, was a way to go deeper, stay there longer and deploy, retrieve and collect data through sensor packages that are both on board the vehicle as well as secured to the bottom. It really, essentially, gave us a way to go deeper. The Great Lakes are not home to a large amount of commercial diving. There are certainly commercial diving programs and companies around the Great Lakes doing lots of work, but we didn’t support a lot of deep diving. We don’t have a lot of industry that goes deep. And so the science of the Great Lakes really involved getting to the bottom of the lakes and the ROV really opened that up.

The ROV, in a science or research perspective, was a way to go deeper, stay there longer and deploy, retrieve and collect data through sensor packages that are both on board the vehicle as well as secured to the bottom. It really, essentially, gave us a way to go deeper.

UW: Each year you host a week-long program that allows people really hands on experience with marine technologies including with ROVs, sonar, sensors and other instruments like that. Can you talk about the advent of that program and how you feel it has benefited the industry?

HVS: Early on, we saw a need for that applied component of equipment use. Programs throughout the country that taught Marine Science or any kind of oceanography with a technology influence, the one thing people weren’t getting was hands-on time with the equipment. They may be developing a new sensor or getting data from a sensor package, but they don’t know what they look like, they don’t know how to calibrate them. My biggest push has been that they don’t know how to understand or trust the data that they’ve been given to process. So, this camp was designed three or four years ago at the Underwater Intervention Conference, and we had been delivering some programming in the education tracks, some presentations, and we sat down with the Education Outreach Vice President for MTS and we both had a similar vision and thought process. Creating a camp or a technology exposure for students who don’t get it would be really valuable. And so we launched that with promotion across the U.S. and the first year we ran it we didn’t know what we were going to get. We got students from Texas A&M, the University of Florida, from California and New Jersey. We had three people from the Office of Naval Intelligence who came in. Nobody from Michigan. Not only an eclectic group, but we also had five women who were a part of it. They were from Ocean Engineering Programs or Marine Science Programs. They were learning about sonar and ROV and shipboard operations but had never seen or used any of these pieces of equipment. So they came in and we were putting in multiple ROV packages, multi-beam sonar, side-scan, magnetometers, scanning sonars, everything we would do in our whole curriculum, all of the fun stuff in a very applied way, for five days in May. Those students were all really impressed with what they were getting access to and they loved it. I still keep in touch with many of those people. We’ve hosted students from those schools in subsequent years. ONI has sent us more people. They were blown away with understanding the tool. It made them better engineers, better data processors. We’re continuing to do that now, we’ll plan those for every year. I think there will be continued interest across multiple sectors because so many schools don’t have the assets that we have.

UW: Across all industries, automation and robotics and technology have become a more prominent part of everybody’s lives. Are you seeing a corresponding rise in demand for ROVs?

HVS: Absolutely, without a doubt. I think you’re right on with this question because, number one, there is such a need and demand for our graduates. Every single student has a job. There are companies calling for four AUV/ROV techs. There are large companies who are looking for enormous amounts of ROV technicians. Not only just the rise in oil and gas markets, but all of the other sectors that are also seeing a change. The ROV has been around for a while, the AUV is starting to create more of a foothold, but the idea that the ROV operator can be the AUV operator and the skillset is very similar, the competencies required are very similar. And so, I think with automation and the development of more things that can work out in a marine environment, not putting a big ship with multiple people, which is very expensive, you’re seeing more people looking at these. The automated piece, the AUV piece, I see as growing exponentially now and in the next few years because of the ease of deployment, the cost and the value of the data coming back.

UW: Your school is a recognized ADCI ROV Training Program. Can you discuss what the school’s relationship with ADCI has been?

HVS: I first got the chance to meet Phil Newsum four to five years ago through some colleagues at other schools. They said, “You need to meet Phil.” The idea was we were trying to become one of, if not the provider of academically credentialed, high-quality ROV training. To become a very top notch ROV school. I had a chance to talk to Phil on the phone, which quickly led to a visit and really looking at what we had put together here. Our role at ADCI has been taking that ROV component and building it out so that it meets the same standard and required competencies that the diving community has also developed through ADCI. To me, I think that’s probably the most exciting and valuable thing because what a diver goes through to receive that ADCI certification is very scripted from a perspective of industry from the required hours, to the competency, to how it all has to package together. It has some oversight from the governing bodies. I think an ROV school can be very similar. Too many times, industry have had to develop their own training program and that was for their own product. Why wouldn’t there be what I’ll call an international certification from a known entity that could also provide the same thing for either new people coming into the ROV industry or for existing people in the ADCI community to do this. Infrastructure inspection and the work that the member companies of ADCI, that’s the foundation for work around the globe. That’s probably the one sector that has the most sustainability in terms of our infrastructure needs and the role of divers and technology systems that will be needed at a higher level as our infrastructure gets older. I was happy to get the opportunity to connect with Phil and build that out because I think what we’re doing follows the rigor that was already there from the diving community.