Long read

Shaping the future of remote and autonomous marine operations

Future of remote inspection graphic


28 Mar 2023


Ivar de Josselin De Jong & Henk van Dalen

New technological developments are set to revolutionise marine operations. Reduced carbon footprint, safer operations and cost efficiencies are already being delivered by remote and autonomous vehicles and processes. Remote operations and autonomy play an important part in our future operations, yet progress towards full commercialisation is still slow. So, what’s holding the industry back and how can we speed up the pace of change?

The value remote operations can bring

There is certainly a lot of enthusiasm for the transition to remote and autonomous operations. We have started to see some early adopter clients and it would be great to further collaborate to get these safe, sustainable and cost-efficient technologies developing further.

Our clients, Woodside Australia and TAQA in Europe, are at the forefront of the trend. They each stepped into the unknown with us, by enabling us to deploy our uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) and electric powered remotely operated vehicles (eROVs) for marine pipeline inspection work. This was a great success and brought value to their operations.

Their collaboration was rewarded with significant environmental benefits, improved safety and cost-savings. It also enabled us to grow our operational experience and optimise our operational model by implementing the newly required operational procedures that supports remote and autonomous operations. We hope other clients are inspired to follow suit.

Meeting net zero targets

We’ve set ourselves a tough challenge: carbon emissions from our marine operations will have to be net zero by 2035. How will we achieve that? The following features in our plans:

  • Change the balance of our fleet – by adding more remote and autonomous solutions through expansion of our USV fleet as they consume 95 % less fuel than crewed vessels;

  • ‘Green up’ our fleet – methanol or hybrid conversions on our traditional vessels are just one of the many options available;

  • Build our future workforce – change the balance, with fewer people working offshore and more based in our onshore remote operations centres (ROCs) providing a safer work environment. This approach will provide opportunities to improve the diversity of our teams and to embrace new skillsets and competencies that we see widely developed in other industries, where virtual and augmented reality, for example play an important role.

Challenges we are yet to overcome

Legislation is just one of the many challenges the marine industry is facing as it transitions to remote and autonomous operations. Maritime law has taken centuries to develop to its current shape and is captured in a multitude of documents and law books with each country having its own library. Consequently, it can take years to introduce or amend legislation, so it’s hardly surprising that marine law has struggled to keep pace with the rate of technological advancement.

For example, it’s been less than a decade since the commercial introduction of USVs to marine operations, yet many marine authorities have yet to pass hard legislation, which is legal obligations that are binding on the stakeholders involved and can be legally enforced. Some authorities have implemented a policy in the interim. This may involve restricting the operational area or requiring an accompanying guard vessel, thus impacting the anticipated added value of remote and autonomous operations for the industry.

People management and future talent is another key challenge. Having a good operating team is critical to the success of offshore projects, but getting skilled personnel in the current market conditions is a struggle. The transition to remote and autonomous operations requires creating opportunities for a more diverse workforce. This is why we have invested heavily to continuously improve our operational model to support our offshore personnel on our conventional fleet, while providing increased career opportunities within our global network of remote operations centres (ROC) onshore. Remote operation capabilities are enabling offshore specialists to make the transition to onshore. For example, a surveyor or systems engineer may decide to pursue their technical career exclusively in a ROC. For those that want to continue working offshore, there will still be a strong career pathway with transition to this new operational model.

AMSA approval – early anticipation and stakeholder management

More than a year before the launch of our first Blue Essence® 12 metre USV in Australia, the necessity of early engagement with relevant stakeholders was recognised and we worked closely together with our main client Woodside. Conversations were picked up with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and the Pilbara Ports Authority, which ultimately resulted in approval for our uncrewed operations in Australian waters. The challenge was that it was the first of its kind. There was no operational model or industry standards to follow, so we embarked on a journey with Woodside and the AMSA to develop the operational standards, which is now the baseline for remote operations in Australia. Collaboration is key!

MCA certification – a rigorous but beneficial process

In February 2023, we were delighted to receive Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) certification for our USV operations in UK waters. The certification process took close to two years to complete. This included extensive research and investigations to build a robust safety case for our Blue Essence® USV. We’re now reaping the benefits of the in-depth knowledge gained through the process and sharing this with our clients.

ROV innovations

We’re always on the lookout for innovation and growth opportunities. Our trailblazing approach to ROVs is a great illustration of this. In the summer of 2019, we kicked off our eROV development programme, with the objective to provide a high powered, highly capable and reliable electric ROV to our business. Just over two years later we launched the first Blue Volta® eROV from our Blue Essence® USV, ready to perform pipeline and structural inspection work. Both low-carbon innovations were commercial industry firsts that delivered significant added value to our clients, while also reducing personnel safety risks.

Fugro Orca / Blue Essence / Taqa project / North Sea / 3 March 2022
Fugro Blue Essence USV and Blue Volta eROV in the North Sea

Fugro Blue Essence® and Blue Volta® in the North Sea

The future looks bright

Our recent developments in automation, robotisation, machine learning and artificial intelligence are remarkable. And these achievements are of course just the tip of the iceberg.

For a successful transition and to maximise the combined potential of all this new technology in a commercially successful and sustainable way, we need to make sure all the building blocks are in place and working. This includes USVs, ROVs, ROCs, data acquisition, processing and delivery software, training, new operational models and procedures, and legislation. We are continuing to expand our expertise with a careful focus on delivering a fully working solution to our clients.

Remote and autonomous operations will add value by producing fast data insights in a safer, more sustainable and cost-efficient way. All parties need to get ready for what’s coming. We’re doing exactly that by developing the next generation of USVs that will be able to work in deeper waters and more challenging environments, as well as building an operational model to provide value for our clients.

It's an exciting time to be in the marine business.

Did you know?

  • The global maritime autonomous surface ships market size was about USD $6 billion in 2020

  • The global maritime autonomous surface ships market revenue growth is expected to reach approximately USD $14 billion in 2030

  • Our USVs reduce fuel consumption by up to 95 % compared to conventional vessels

  • Our Blue Volta® electric powered ROV can work in water depths down to 450 m

About the author

Ivar de Josselin De Jong & Henk van Dalen are Director Strategy & Commercial & Director Blue Robotics

Site investigation (CPT and drilling) and monitoring
Performing CPT, drilling and monitoring of the Grimburgwal canal in Amsterdam

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