Boaty McBoatface to Monitor Marine Environment in the North Sea

The National Oceanography Center (NOC) has started researching robotic submarines Boaty McBoatface in disused oil fields off the coast of Shetland to help monitor and protect the marine environment in the North Sea and support the industry’s transition towards its net zero goals.

The underwater robot will explore several oil and gas structures including NW Hutton and Miller and the Braemar Pockmarks Marine Protected Area, revolutionizing the way marine surveys are conducted.

Supervision for decommissioning of oil and gas structures

The NOC-led Autonomous Techniques for InfraStructure Ecological Assessment (AT-SEA) project will explore the concept of using submarines such as Boaty McBoatface for high-tech, low-impact monitoring to identify potential environmental impacts at these industrial sites. This may eventually replace the current approach to environmental monitoring for decommissioning, which requires dedicated vessels and offshore human teams.

The NOC’s AT-SEA project will be carried out over a 10-day period using state-of-the-art technology with the aim of providing future-proof solutions for the oil industry that focus on the need to achieve better net zero targets. The robots will collect data on water, pollutants and currents, and take pictures of the sea floor. The team will test whether these robotic systems can collect equivalent information to the surveys currently being carried out on ships. The emissions, risks and costs of these operations will be significantly reduced in the future thanks to the automated technology developed at the NOC.

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Project manager for AT-SEA, Dr. Daniel Jones, from the National Oceanography Centre, explained: “The overall aim of the project is to improve the protection of the North Sea at lower cost and with less environmental impact. We want to show how this leading robotic technology from the NOC could be deployed globally to support this crucial ocean surveillance.”

The advantages of autonomous submarines

There are currently thousands of oil and gas structures at sea that are nearing the end of their lives – there are almost 500 in UK waters alone. Decommissioning usually involves removing them and restoring the environment to a safe state. To ensure that there are no harmful effects on the marine environment, decommissioning operations need to be supported by an environmental assessment and subsequent monitoring.

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dr Jones continued, “This technology has the potential to transform the way ocean surveys are conducted in the future. Autonomous submarines could offer many advantages over current approaches; Improving the quality and quantity of environmental information while reducing the cost and environmental impact for a survey vessel and its crew. The AT-SEA project will test this concept in UK waters and conduct the first fully autonomous environmental assessment of multiple decommissioning sites.”

Marine robots, which independently carry out surveying missions with the help of computer systems, are regularly used by scientists for environmental assessments because they quickly collect very high-quality data. Additionally, the use of autonomous underwater vehicles is a low-carbon solution to environmental monitoring problems that will result in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over traditional approaches using ships. Recent technological developments have reduced the cost and extended the range of these robots to thousands of miles, allowing long-range assessments of multiple sites to be performed with one robot launched from shore.

Mapping of the seabed

The Autosub Long-Range Ocean Robotic Submarine, aka Boaty McBoatface, will be launched from the coast of Shetland to carry out environmental assessments at two decommissioning sites in the northern North Sea. The robot then returns on board about 10 days later with the detailed survey information. The robot will take photos of the seabed, which will be automatically stitched together to create a map of the seabed, existing structures and the animals that live there. Established sensor systems will measure a range of water properties, including the presence of hydrocarbons. As well as the decommissioned sites, the robot will visit a special marine reserve known to have natural gas leaks to check if the robot can reliably detect a leak should one occur in the future.

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Upon returning to shore, the project team examines all the data obtained and compares it to that collected using standard survey vessel methods. In addition, the team will test whether the same environmental trends can be identified from both datasets to determine if the automated approach would be a suitable replacement for standard survey vessel operations.

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