Simulation supporting design of subsea equipment

By Andy McAra, Forum Energy Technologies

VMAXs allow operators to effectively plan for subsea projects remotely (photo: Forum Energy Technologies)
VMAXs allow operators to effectively plan for subsea projects remotely (photo: Forum Energy Technologies)

As the oil and gas industry continues to demand efficiencies within the project supply chain, innovative technologies can prove valuable in reducing unforeseen costs associated with rework, redesign and operational work arounds. Once the process of installation of seabed equipment is underway, the discovery of a design flaw which will hamper or even halt the operation can prove costly to rectify.

Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) are widely used across the oil and gas and renewable industries where they support subsea construction projects amongst many other applications. Understanding how these sophisticated vehicles interact with the equipment being deployed on the seabed is vital to the success of subsea projects.

Design engineers don’t always have a full understanding of ROV operations and can often overlook potential design flaws. This can result in elements of the design proving problematic for those piloting the vehicles remotely once in the field.

Forum Energy Technologies’ VMAX software – a 3D ROV simulation product – is a well-established example of technology used as a remote training and evaluation tool for ROV pilots. Now, there is a growing demand from subsea engineering companies to apply the same technology for analysis of equipment design and deployment plans.

Tailoring scenarios
Operating an ROV hundreds, or even thousands of metres below sea level, poses a number of challenges. There is no kinesthetics feedback (the feeling of the motion of the submarine), the pilot is generally seeing the world through a predefined set of camera views, and the subsea environment often has poor lighting and low visibility conditions.

VMAX is used as a remote training and evaluation tool for ROV pilots (illustration: Forum Energy Technologies)
VMAX is used as a remote training and evaluation tool for ROV pilots (illustration: Forum Energy Technologies)

Simulation creates a new way to gain operational knowledge as it is relatively inexpensive for an engineer to utilise a desktop simulator to fly an ROV. VMAX is provided with a variety of ROV scenarios designed to test pilots’ skills such as tether management, manipulator control and managing tooling functions within realistic conditions.

However, these scenarios are generic and often focused on learning an operation, rather than analysing a specific project. For example, there is a scenario for installing a rigid jumper, but the operation is focused on torque-tool and hotstab operations, rather than the specific layout of a particular field in which there may be additional obstacles that create new challenges.

Where the simulator has shown its true power is in tailoring circumstances for a specific project. Creating individual situations with models of the actual equipment being used for a subsea campaign allows the engineers and ROV pilots to fully understand how the vehicle will interact with the equipment once deployed to the field. Simulation will quickly show when another piece of equipment is in the way of operating a certain ROV panel on a manifold, which may not be obvious when designing the panel. This kind of simulation can also be used by subsea engineering teams for modelling and verification of procedures involving intervention tasks for subsea equipment, implementing its custom scenario creation capabilities.

Reduced complexity, increased efficiency
Forum recently collaborated with a world-leading technology provider to build new processes to revolutionise the use of the simulator.

To verify equipment, the client had utilised animation for several years. This involved the time-consuming process of producing hundreds of still shots of a modelled ROV performing tasks for a subsea structure. The shots were created by puppeteering the ROV around the structure to the correct locations. Despite years of optimisations, this system still took a significant amount of time to create reports and continued to present several additional limitations.

VMAX is provided with a variety of ROV scenarios designed to test pilots’ skills (illustration: Forum Energy Technologies)
VMAX is provided with a variety of ROV scenarios designed to test pilots’ skills (illustration: Forum Energy Technologies)

It was quickly determined that simulation could perform the verification task faster than the current animation pipeline, so the company collaborated with Forum to work through a process that included optimisation of model prep, organising the model repository and pipeline, and simplifying the interface with the simulator. This allowed personnel with little-to-no programming experience to create scenarios and fly the vehicle.

Working with the client’s animation specialist and directed by a system engineer, during the first stage, models were prepared for simulation and then scripts were arranged for the animators. While reducing interface complexity, the scripts were used by the VMAX engineer to move models into place and add custom functionality to the simulation.

This process significantly reduced the complexity of the current operation and enabled engineers and animators with little or no experience in programming to simply change a data value at the top of the script, and completely change the behaviour in the simulation. The scripts were modified based on feedback and ideas from the team, which greatly improved the overall usefulness and speed of scenario creation.

At the completion of the project, the team had reduced the time for evaluating large structures to approximately one week per piece of architecture. This provided large-scale financial savings when compared to previous projects of a similar scope. The following project was completed even faster, with more functionality and easier processes created. Additionally, the company performed most of the verification projects with minimal support from Forum’s personnel.

Simulation for the future
Systems such as VMAX allow operators and developers to effectively plan and prepare for subsea projects remotely, assuring that any obstacles are highlighted and understood before deployment.

This process allows ROV pilots and engineering teams to prepare in ways which have never been possible before, avoiding risk and delivering significant cost and time efficiencies.

Andy Mcara has more than 25 years’ experience in the subsea industry, holding senior positions at Nautronix and C-Tecnics. He has worked for Forum Energy Technologies for almost 10 years, holding the position of product director – VisualSoft/VMAX since 2015.