They were first used by the Navy for target practice against fast attack vessels and surveillance of the seas.
Now a new generation of ‘captainless’ boats are aiding the North Sea oil and gas industry by carrying out often dangerous tasks in hostile environments, without a single man on board.
Autonomous Surface Vehicles have been adapted from their military roots to inspect pipelines and other subsea structures for damage using a fraction of the fuel and manpower traditionally required for such work.
They can also be used for seabed mapping and data collection, with the vessels fitted with a mixture of marine radar, GPS, infra red cameras and sonar equipment.
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Extra kit can also be carried if required- such as remotely operated underwater vehicles - which can be automatically lowered to the sea bed from the craft.
Previously, the job would require a large supply vessel loaded with workers, food, fuel and equipment being sent to the oil field.
James Hailstones is the business manager for ASV Ltd, one of a number of unmanned marine services companies, which last year opened an office in Aberdeen.
The company has expanded into the North East to capitalise on North Sea opportunities with established bases in Houston, Texas and Portsmouth.
Mr Hailstones said numerous companies like ASV were now in operation and that it was an ‘industry on the rise’.
The move into the North Sea signalled an “evolution” of the technology devised for the defence industry which can now be used to help the offshore industry cut costs at a time of low barrel price, he added.
Mr Hailstones said: “Usually you would send out a large vessel to do this type of work and normally that comes at a huge cost, from the behind the scenes support of that ship to the transport to get the crew member there, to the food costs while they are onboard.
“There are an awful lot of hidden costs involved but doing things our way, you do remove a lot of the expense.”
Mr Hailstones said the autonomous vehicles also reduced safety risks and had less of an impact on marine mammals given their low rates of acoustic noise.
The vehicles are operated either autonomously, with the vessel’s software programmed to carry out a series of tasks, or unmanned.
Being unmanned allows the vehicle to be controlled and manoeuvred by an operator from an existing platform, rig or supply vessel, he added.
Currently, these vessels cannot go long distances as marine regulations don’t allow for such craft to travel over the horizon. They have to remain within line-of-sight.
Mr Hailstones added: “If we were able to operate over the horizon, where we could have someone in Aberdeen controlling something in the North Sea, there would be so much work available and we could remove so many resources for operators. As it stands you much have a watch keeper with the vessel.
“It’s a barrier at the moment but it is just one of these things, there is no way round it at the moment.”
Mr Hailstones added that discussions were ongoing with the Marine Coastguard Agency and the industry as a whole was working towards over-the-horizon operations in the future.
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The business manager said work continues to get the oil and gas industry interested in the technology.
A recent oil and gas conference in Aberdeen heard the sector had been slow to embrace new innovation and had to steal ideas from other sectors to help cut costs and move the industry forward from the low-barrel price era.
Mr Hailstones said: “The oil and gas industry in the UK is still quite conservative and you can see why given what has happened over the past year or two. People are still fighting for their jobs and they don’t want to take a chance, in case that chance goes wrong.
“But what I would say, is that the technology speaks for itself. What we need to do is expose people to the new technology and methodologies and illustrate how it can help them.”
Mike Tholen, Oil & Gas UK’s economics director, said it was vital to foster a culture of innovation within the industry to insure its longterm health and meet the challenges of the current business environment.
He added: “Companies must continue to pursue the development of new technology, and be ready to adopt technological advances.”