Engineers to design next generation subsea inspection system for petroleum industry

A new inspection vehicle to monitor the condition of subsea pipelines will be designed and developed by a Flinders University engineering team to meet the growing needs of the offshore petroleum sector.

With integrated sonar and video sensing, the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) will not only assess the integrity of pipelines that lie up to 2.5 kilometres below sea level but will also evaluate the changing conditions of the sea-floor.

Joint Team Leader, Associate Professor Karl Sammut from the Flinders School of Informatics and Engineering, said a number of challenges faced the petroleum sector as oil and gas resources were increasingly developed a long way from shore.

“At present more than 80 per cent of Australia’s gas resources exist in remote areas that can lie up to 300 kilometres offshore and extra-long pipelines will be required to transport the oil and gas from the deep sea environment safely back to shore,’ Associate Professor Sammut said.

“However, offshore there are many challenges facing the safe transportation of these elements, including the integrity of the pipe itself, shifting seabeds, strong currents, overheating due to sand coverage and pressure – all of which are to be examined through this project.”

The AUV concept is being developed as part of a $3.5million research project by the CSIRO Wealth From Oceans Flagship, which is aimed at finding science-based engineering solutions for the safe and economic design and operation of subsea pipelines in Australia’s deepwater frontiers.

Flinders is one of six universities taking part in the Subsea Pipeline Collaboration Cluster, including the University of Western Australia, Monash University, the University of Queensland, the University of Sydney and Curtin University of Technology.

The Flinders node has, through its Intelligent Systems Research Group, received $409,000 in funding to develop an AUV concept vehicle that can be used to monitor the performance of offshore pipelines.

The group, jointly led by Associate Professor Sammut, Associate Professor Fangpo He and Dr Jimmy Li from
the School of Informatics and Engineering, will work on the project together with colleagues from the University of Western Australia and Curtin University.

According to Associate Professor Sammut, the Cluster will investigate a range of areas as part of the project, including seabed characterisation prior to pipeline deployment, the evaluation of potential pipeline hazards, and analysing pipeline-seabed-ocean interaction.

“Flinders will use the funding to appoint two post doctoral researchers to help carry out the research on the navigation, control, and video and sonar imaging,” Associate Professor Sammut said.

The post doctoral researchers will join a team of five PhD students already engaged on the project.

“The project itself is very similar to one that is currently being undertaken in the North Sea between England and Norway, where they experience similar problems of sand-shift and movement of the seabed.

However, we believe there is much to be learned through our experiments due to the fact that pipelines have never before been laid so deep below sea level before,” Associate Professor Sammut said.

Associate Professor Fangpo He said “the biggest challenge posed by the deep water environment is the complexity of operating an AUV over long periods of submerged activity with little or no human intervention”.

“This challenge defines the need for advanced control, navigation, imaging, and reasoning techniques as well as improved power systems and these areas form the core expertise of the research group,” she said.

The AUV is being developed on site at Flinders University in South Australia with the collaboration of the Engineering Technical staff. The group is currently exploring avenues for additional funding to complete construction of the vehicle and to obtain access to a large tank facility to facilitate testing before deploying the AUV at sea.

Collaboration with other marine research groups is also being sought with the assistance of the Flinders Research Centre for Coastal and Catchment Environments.

The post doctoral students are expected to be appointed early in 2008.

Associate Professor Fangpo He (standing, left), Dr Jimmi Li (right) and Associate Professor Karl Sammut examine the AUV simulator.

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