ROVs now entering the 'productivity era' of their history

In historical terms, the ROV industry is still quite young.

In historical terms, the ROV industry is still quite young. The commercial aviation and automobile industries, in comparison, have been around at least three times as long. Consequently, the aviation industry, for example, speaks in much more sophisticated terms when discussing productivity. For instance, fuel consumption per passenger mile has improved more than 60% in the time since the ROV industry began.

Likewise, not that many years ago it took special skill and knowledge to start an automobile on a cold winter morning. Today, we live in a world where the modern car has a button on the console labeled "start." In a similar manner, the ROV industry is maturing and transitioning to an era focused on improving productivity, while also simplifying the use of the technology.

The ROV industry still speaks in terms of "downtime." "Is it working or not?" is the most basic measure of productivity. Even though there remains no standard means in the industry to measure downtime, it has improved to the point that focusing on more sophisticated productivity concepts makes sense. For instance, how long does it take to perform the most common subsea task?

The industry has advanced to the point where there is less focus on how or if the job will get done, and added concentration on how to get the job done more effectively. With vessel and rig rates reaching $750,000 or more per day, it is understandable why the focus has shifted in this direction, and there is one common concern that every company shares – not enough skilled people.

Although the ROV industry has developed many skilled operators over the years, there are still two key issues. First, it takes several years to train people to the desired level of expertise. Second, the industry needs these people right now.

Solving these problems requires focus in several areas. Hiring people with the right technical skill sets and aptitude for the offshore environment is certainly key, but teaching them to become experts at operating and maintaining the ROV still takes too long. This results in crews that rely heavily on one or two individuals, rather than on the entire team. This issue is heightened because new operators, who are already qualified technicians, generally require several years of operational offshore experience to become highly proficient.

From a technical perspective, maintenance must be performed correctly and rapidly to reduce downtime. This frequently relies on operators developing years of hands-on experience that results in a thorough understanding of complex diagnostic and repair procedures.

Moreover, with regard to operating the ROV, the challenge of coordinating 10 degrees of motion (ROV + manipulator) is a skill that can be learned predominantly only through experience offshore. Simulators that provide realistic environments and scenarios for training purposes have become more prevalent in recent years; however, it still takes many hours of practice in this environment to become a proficient pilot. Tasks that are common, such as inserting a hot-stab or a torque tool into a subsea tree, may take an expert less than 10 minutes or it could take up to 10 times longer with inexperienced operators. Improving the productivity of all operators by enabling both technical and operational tasks to be performed in a consistent and efficient manner is therefore essential to ensure more effective and profitable operations.

Many industries have been through this very same phase of being dependent on the "superb individual" and the ROV industry is no different. We are fortunate to have many such superb individuals to make our industry function; the problem is that they will always be in short supply. Like countless other industries, a core part of the overall solution is to make the equipment easier to operate and easier to maintain.

It is impractical to say that it will forever take a special person to fly an ROV. It is also impractical to rely on a few individuals who have a unique set of mechanical, electrical, electronic, and hydraulic technical skills to maintain the ROV. The reality is that the technology must be user friendly, so that people with the right core skills can become proficient in a much shorter timeframe.

Fundamentally, the industry will see a progressive change from focusing simply on whether or not the ROV works, to focusing on how productive the ROV system is in the field. Over time, this will shift the discussion toward metrics of true subsea productivity.

Tyler Schilling
FMC Technologies Schilling Robotics

This page reflects viewpoints on the political, economic, cultural, technological, and environmental issues that shape the future of the petroleum industry. Offshore Magazine invites you to share your thoughts. Email your Beyond the Horizon manuscript to David Paganie atdavidp@pennwell.com.

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