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Kick-off for EU-funded research project DexROV: Driver Assistance for Underwater Robots for the Oil and Gas Industry

Robotics experts from Jacobs University will be working together with European colleagues on a new EU-funded project to add more automated functions to underwater robots used in off-shore oil and gas production. Named ‘Driver Assistance for Underwater Robots for the Oil and Gas Industry’ (DexROV), the project is funded by the EU within the H2020 framework in the area ‘Bluegrowth’. The consortium, which is helmed by the Belgian company Space Applications Services, consists in seven partners from six countries, of which four are companies and three are research institutions. Jacobs University is funded with €653,000 within DexROV.
March 17, 2015
Underwater robots known as Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) are nowadays essential for all activities in oil and gas production as operations are carried out in ever deeper waters that are not accessible by divers. A typical work-class ROV is a van-sized submarine robot equipped with two powerful arms and a very long cable that connects it to a surface ship and carries both datalinks and power. It is controlled by teleoperation, i.e., the operators manually drive the vehicle and the arms via several joysticks.
The operation of a ROV hence requires significant off-shore specialized manpower – such a setup typically needs a crew consisting of at least an intendant, an operator, and a navigator who operate the ROV from a support vessel. This is a baseline and extra staffing is often provisioned. Furthermore, additional experts often need or wish to be physically present at the off-shore location, in order to advise on or to observe the course of the operations. Associated costs are very high.
In addition, a typical ROV in the fleet of some dozens of robots needed for daily operations on an oil or gas field costs several million Euros each; its 24/7 permanent use hence needs to be as efficient as possible and operators have to work on 12-hour shifts for 7 days a week during their off-shore working periods. In order to reduce the burden of operations at the offshore side, the EU research project 'Effective Dexterous ROV Operations in Presence of Communications Latencies (DexROV)' will work out proofs of concept for more cost-effective and time-efficient ROV operations, during which automated functions are added and manned support is to a large extent distributed onshore, i.e., from a ROV control center, possibly at a large distance from the actual operations. The outcomes of the project will be integrated and assessed in a series of tests and evaluation campaigns, culminating with a realistic offshore trial over several weeks at 1,300 meters depth in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Jacobs Robotics Group's role in the DexROV project is to develop 3D perception and 3D world modelling tools to support driver assistance functions for the ROV pilots and to provide off-shore virtual reality presence. The 3D perception is based on underwater stereo vision systems developed at Jacobs University that get adapted to oil and gas applications within the project, among others by developing suited hardware that can stand the immense water pressure in the deep-sea.
Data from this sensor gets processed directly during the mission into 3D maps that assist the operators in their work and allow external experts a virtual reality presence on the site. In addition, Jacobs Robotics develops advanced perception methods that will enable ROVs to carry out tasks in a (semi-)autonomous manner instead of being manually tele-operated by a whole crew of highly specialized pilots. This includes for example turning valves with the arms of an ROV – a task which currently still has to be done through manual teleoperation many times a day during oil and gas production. Jacobs researchers will be working on an autonomous handling of the related tasks. The robot will then need to recognize and localize where for example the valve is mounted, drive there on its own, approach and keep stable in front of it, recognize and localize the right valve, and finally do the non-trivial motions of the arm to actually turn the valve.
The DexROV kick-off meeting took place from March 2 to 4, 2015 at the facilities of the partner COMEX in Marseille, France. The meeting included a field trip with the vessel Janus-II of COMEX and operations of a ROV from this ship near the Îsle d’If. This robot will be used in the subsequent test and evaluation campaigns. The kick-off field trip was hence an ideal opportunity for all partners to familiarize themselves with the state of the art in ROV operations. 
Andreas Birk | Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science 
Tel: +49 421 200-3113 | Email: a.birk [at]