It’s been said we know more about the surface of the moon than the world’s oceans, but that could soon change with the advance of robots known as marine autonomous systems (MAS). Loaded with sensors and cameras, these aquatic robots can capture data from the world’s oceans faster, safer and cheaper than ever before.

Marine autonomous systems help BP freely explore its remote offshore operating environments. These vehicles can transmit extraordinary amounts of data in near real-time, so scientists can accurately monitor the oceanic environment, assess risks, or effectively manage a crisis.

Battery-powered and pre-programmed, they can quickly launch from sea, shore or sky and remain independently active in the ocean for up to months at a time. While autonomous by design, you can communicate with the vehicles by satellite to give navigation commands or receive data. At the end of the mission, a surface vessel picks them up.

Such systems have actually been around since the 1950s. But it’s only in recent years, as technology has advanced and costs fallen, that these vehicles have become ready to take over underwater surveillance duties.

BP is currently putting marine autonomous systems to the test; it has partnered with manufacturer Oceaneering for a large-scale underwater trial to survey pipelines and subsea infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico, ahead of a full roll-out.

Revealing the big picture

BP’s global environmental response expert, Peter Collinson, says: “MAS open up a new scale of environmental assessment: whether that’s natural change, or the effects of industry operations. With more data, we have a clearer insight of what’s going on.” Unlike remotely operated vehicles, which need to be tethered to and controlled by a ship, an autonomous underwater vehicle can quickly launch and get straight to work. This is a massive advantage in an emergency, when greater awareness and faster response times can help minimise environmental damage.

Combined with a better understanding of the environment, the low cost of the vehicles could lead to more frequent and detailed inspections of subsea infrastructure, giving earlier warning of any potential issues. As well as this, in some situations, the robots avoid the need to send divers into the water, allowing exploration of areas that were previously inaccessible or inhospitable.

Underwater visibility

Marine autonomous systems offer more than just data in quantity. Quality is also improving. Murky images of the deep are now replaced by crystal clear feeds and pictures. For example, an autonomous underwater vehicle has photographed individual bolts on a sunken military boat more than 1km under the ocean’s surface – a very useful feature during high-resolution surveys for sensitive species and archaeological artefacts. Visibility is also improved by being able to access and examine exact locations.

“We can now repeatedly measure the same square metre of seabed up to 3km deep, rendering objects in 3D and detecting change over time,” explains Collinson. This is a radical improvement on current underwater surveying techniques like grab samples, which involve taking intermittent photos of an area. Collinson says: “We might have just 100 images of 1,000 square kilometres of ocean seabed: tiny pinpricks of information across a vast area. With MAS, we’re going to flip that around so we’ll know everything with just a few pinpoints of uncertainty.”

Pool of knowledge

If the trials in the Gulf of Mexico are successful, BP plans to employ a fleet of underwater vehicles to continuously monitor these pipelines, and may also expand the trial to other regions. Back on dry land, BP regularly runs tests and demonstrations at the Marine Research Innovation Centre (MRIC) at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, UK.

Collinson says: “Through membership of the MRIC, we get access to more than 20 years of autonomous systems technology and knowledge. It’s a great forum for us to work with manufacturers and peers, and learn from sectors beyond oil and gas that may be more advanced with these systems.”

This article was first produced by BP Magazine in May 2016, and has been reproduced by the QEPrize with the permission of BP. The article has been edited for length and clarity, click here to read in full.