April 13, 2015      

Despite — or perhaps because of — declining fuel prices and consumption, money is flowing to undersea robotics. Exploration, inspection, and cleanup are among the applications receiving investment.

ROVOP Ltd. is expanding its presence in Houston to better compete in the Gulf of Mexico. The Aberdeen, Scotland-based remotely operated vehicle (ROV) company plans to staff up to about 150 employees in Texas and is opening a 1.5-acre site, including 4,500 sq. ft. of office space and 17,300 sq. ft. for a workshop. ROVOP did not specify how much it spent on the expansion.

ROVOP's Houston offices

ROVOP is adding office and workshop space in Houston.

ROVOP already has five ship-based ROVs in the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s investing in two more for deep-water vessel and oil rig inspection. The company’s service fleet includes the SAAB Seaeye and ROVs from FMC Technologies’ Schilling Robotics division.

“The recent mobilization of two Schilling Ultra-Heavy Duty Generation III ROVs, capable of closing a blowout preventer within 45 seconds to meet American Petroleum Institute requirements, illustrates ROVOP?s commitment to supporting clients with industry-leading technology in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Scott Wagner, ROVOP Houston managing director, in a statement.

ROVs aid exploration and safety

Smaller, more modular designs are making ROVs more useful for exploration and inspection. Forum Energy Technologies launched its XLX-C ROV at Subsea Expo 2015. Offshore energy company Subsea 7 has already placed an order for six vehicles, which replace the XLX model, to be used off of Brazil.

“Operator safety and environmental impact were fundamental drivers during the design process,” said Graham Adair, vice president of sales and marketing at Forum, which has headquarters in Houston and Aberdeen. “The XLX-C is more compact, so it takes up less deck space onboard a vessel. The hydraulic systems and electrical subsystems have been rationalized, while functionality and reliability have increased.”

Scotland isn’t the only hub of ROV interest. The EU is spending about €12.6 million ($13.3 million U.S.) on the Viable Alternative Mine Operating System (VAMOS). Netherlands-based Damen Shipyards Group and other partners are developing a robotic underwater prototype over the next five years under the Horizon 2020 program and VAMOS.

Improvements in miniaturization and machine vision are also making environmental assessment easier. Students and scientists from Aberystwyth University are testing ROVs in Cardigan Bay in western Wales.

If and when safety measures fail, robots such as one being developed at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William & Mary can play a role in cleaning up oil spills, which have been found to have a lingering effect on the local environment.

Rough waters appeal to investors

All this activity comes in spite of layoffs and increasing regulation, both of which encourage the use of automation and ROVs. The U.S. Department of the Interior has planned new safety rules five years after the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The tightened rules are paired with limited expansion of drilling off the Eastern Seaboard.

Low fuel prices may also make the sector more attractive to investors. For instance, Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s planned purchase of BG Group PLC to better compete with ExxonMobil is part of a larger consolidation in the liquid natural gas market, as consumption falls in Europe and prices fall in Asia.

In fact, a report from ResearchandMarkets.com predicted that the global underwater robotics market will grow at 6.2 percent from 2014 to 2019.