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Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are programmable robots that function independently from operator input. For the purposes of the oil and gas industry, AUVs are primarily used to survey seafloors before subsea infrastructures are built, to build subsea infrastructures and pipelines, and to survey pipelines after completion. AUVs can provide a less costly and invasive alternative to traditional surveying methods.
Torpedoes are technically the first AUVs, and their history can be traced back to submarines (Ref 1). The first submarine, The Turtle, was created in 1775 in Saybrook, Connecticut, by brothers David and Ezra Bushnell. One person could fit inside of the wooden, hand-and-foot-operated vehicle (not fully submersible as it floated on the surface in even the roughest waters) and the air supply lasted for 30 minutes. Although the Turtle was the first submarine to be involved in a naval battle, in New York Harbor in 1776, it was not until 1879 that the world’s first “practical powered” submarine was built by J.B. Cochran.
It was not, however, until the 1970s that AUVs became widely used and it took about 30 years for them to be introduced into the oil and gas industry. (Ref 2)
Ocean floor mapping
Building infrastructure and pipelines
Although they’re a relatively new technology in oil and gas, AUVs have proven to have advantages over traditional measurement techniques.
Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts have been sending AUVs on data collection missions spanning thousands of kilometers. The robots allow the scientists to make observations in areas where even tethered remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) can’t reach. While polar ice measurements taken from the surface can often be inaccurate because researchers could accidentally drill holes in thinner areas, beneath-ice observations via AUVs can avoid those thin spots.
Gliders are self-propelling AUVs that can travel as far as 3,000 km while conserving enough energy to collect environmental data. Streamlined body designs that reduce drag and keep the vehicles small, along with programming to keep the gliders moving slowly, aid in the gliders’ efficiency. (Ref 3)