New collaboration brings together high-speed ROV capability and reduced costs created in response to COVID-19 operational requirements
When COVID-19 hit, moving personnel and equipment was no easy task. But the important things continued. There were sites to inspect, repairs to conduct and maintenance jobs to perform.
These challenging circumstances led to an initial relationship between Scotland’s Underwater Contracting (UCO) and another Scottish company, Gulfxstream. The collaboration, however, is showing signs that it may pay off well beyond the pandemic.
First, meet the players: Gulfxstream, based on the Isle of Lewis, operates a small fleet of workboats in the UK and international waters. UCO owns a fleet of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and operates in the aquaculture, renewables and oil and gas markets. It is part of the Ocean Marine Group and is based in Aberdeen.
The working collaboration, which was announced in March, places an ROV on Gulfxstream’s MV Viking. The MV Viking crew is trained to operate the ROV, and UCO’s personnel is available for troubleshooting and advice consultation through networking apps.
Trying to adhere to COVID-related social distancing rules, “we thought it would be better if we mobilized ROV systems into vessels and trained the personnel so there were no further requirements for personnel movement,” said Mick Bower, general manager of UCO.
But the financial benefits have made the initiative worth further exploration. Plans are to add ROVs to other Gulfxstream vessels and potentially to other vessel operators, Bower said. Though the project is in its early days, “there have been no real challenges,” Bower said.
With Gulfxstream’s focus on renewable energy, the ROV is proving capable of handling the tasks and the MV Viking crew is excelling at handling the ROV.
With the ROV permanently aboard the MV Viking, the cost savings are significant, particularly on smaller jobs, Bower said.
“The issue with smaller ROV operations is the mobilization costs, especially when there are people involved,” he said. “Usually, it’s a considerable portion of the costs, especially if it’s an operation of only a few days.”
Both parties can use the relationship to benefit customers. UCO may have a client inquiry about an ROV project, or Gulfxstream may be asked about work that could benefit from use of an ROV. In either case, the alliance means both have the equipment and vessel to do the job. “We find there are synergies where we need a boat or they may find their operation needs an ROV, whether that is power line inspections, seabed work or windfarm work. We may get an inquiry about an ROV, and we can propose the vessel to our client.”
Those synergies mean an easy working relationship between the two, Bower said. “We’re more effective now, rather than having to form a team, build a relationship and have some sort of workup period to where you’re cost efficient. We can be more efficient quite quickly.”
The ROV aboard the MV Viking, which can operate 60 miles offshore, is depth-rated to 300 meters and includes sonar and underwater cameras. The ROV can be outfitted with 3D cameras, laser metrology and survey tools. The MV Viking can use the ROV for underwater inspection of marine and renewable structures, hydrographic surveying, environmental monitoring, search and rescue, hull inspections at sea or in port and emergency response for cable and pipeline damage identification.
In a statement announcing the joint venture, Calum Buchanan, Gulfxstream’s managing director, said the relationship came at a time when his company was experienced a “marked increase” in requests for vessels to service offshore renewable sites, inspect vessels at sea, transfer personnel, and other tasks that were impacted by COVID-19.
Though the initial project is still in its infancy, Bower sees more opportunities in the future. He plans to strategically place ROVs into different areas, bringing even greater efficiencies to the deployment. Already, the company is working with Gulfxstream on future additions, including in west Scotland and other UK ports. Two Gulfxstream vehicles are ready for deployment, including the Valtos, which can operate 150 miles offshore, and the Venturer, a rigid inflatable boat (RIB). deployment. Already, the company is working with Gulfxstream on future additions, including in west Scotland and other UK ports. Two Gulfxstream vehicles are ready for deployment, including the Valtos, which can operate 150 miles offshore, and the Venturer, a rigid inflatable boat (RIB).
This type of deployment is not hands-off from UCO’s perspective, however. While plans are that the ROVs will be permanent additions to the vessels, UCO personnel will “support them from a central base,” Bower said. “We will teach people to use the ROVs, but with the introduction of Teams, Skype and all, everyone is learning to work from a location anywhere.”
Bower believes the alliance with Gulfxstream will allow it to deploy its ROVs more quickly, something vital in an emergency situation. The key will be in placing these ROVs strategically, so “we can limit the mobilization time and the pain and costs of that. If we can get them in the right place when needed, we should have preferential rights to win these bids,” he explains.
This comes at a time when smaller ROV systems have become more reliable and now have more tooling, Bower said. “The natural progression is that it will replace divers to an extent. Anything you can do to limit the amount of time divers are underwater creates a safety case.”
Safety during the midst of a pandemic is what launched the project, and it may just be that safety case – as well as the economics – that keep it in place for the future.