KONGSBERG’S autonomous underwater vehicle, the HUGIN, has many roles and one customer using the technology in new and innovative ways

Journey to the deep

It does everything from seabed searches for missing planes and vessels to offshore energy surveys, all using the latest technology providing accurate data to the operator. Meet the underwater workhorse, the HUGIN, and find out how Ocean Infinity is using KONGSBERG’S innovation to the full.

  • Gunvor Hatling Midtbø
    Vice President, Communications

In 2018, Ocean Infinity’s fleet of HUGIN autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) spent 138 days scouring the seabed of the southern Indian Ocean as part of an international search effort to trace the location of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 that tragically disappeared off the radar on 8 March 2014. Although the US-based company, that specialises in marine robotic sensing and data capture, did not find any wreckage in the area designated to it by the ATSB, Ocean Infinity gained experience of operating multiple AUVs over a large area of ocean and over a long time period.

Josh Broussard, Ocean Infinity’s Chief Technical Officer, explains: “This was an unprecedented operation for us over deep and chaotic terrain with changeable weather conditions, but our mother ship, with its fully autonomous HUGIN AUVs covered 125,000 square kilometres in 138 days of search operations – that’s more area covered than the previous search did in two years, using towed or single AUV survey systems. The experience showed the huge operational and environmental potential of using multi autonomous systems.”

Josh Broussard, Chief Technical Officer, Ocean Infinity

Josh, a controls engineer by background, has been fascinated at the potential of autonomous survey systems, not only from the point of view of increased efficiencies but also their contribution to sustainability, as he explains: “Compared to other surveys on this mission, we used 80 per cent less fuel and emitted 72 per cent less CO2. If you look at all the metrics of our operation, such as total hours spent at sea, man hours worked, hours of humans at risk, all of that is materially reduced compared to others. Employing multiple AUVs offers greater efficiencies and also lowers the HSE impact on the operations. Everything that you think of as a risk to safety or the environment is taken down by orders of magnitude.”

Since this search, the company has been refining its operations using multiple AUVs in oil and gas, and offshore wind power projects and even Antarctic scientific surveys. It has also been involved in some high-profile underwater search missions, such as for the Stella Daisy cargo ship that went down off the coast of South Africa in March 2017, and the ARA San Juan, the Argentine Navy submarine that was last heard from in November 2017 in the Atlantic Ocean.

Underwater workhorses

Josh says: “The depth rating was the first thing we were looking for and KONGSBERG’S 6,000-metre rated vehicle was ideal for our operations. The second thing we looked for was the accuracy of the navigation system, so that we are able to pinpoint an object in 3D space or know exactly where data is coming from. In my opinion, I believe the HUGINs are the most accurate, navigating underwater vehicles that you can buy right now. They are always exactly where they are supposed to be and this consistency of navigation is important for our highly complex co-ordinated multi-vehicle operations.

Analysing Data

“They are also a very quiet platform, both electronically and acoustically, which enables us to produce high quality data. When we ordered the HUGINs we went for the full-specification model, so each one has multiple sonars, cameras, laser systems, pressure sensors and navigation instruments. We have found that nothing interferes with the sensors, so we're able to collect data from multiple sources at the same time, from the same platform, which is crucial for our operations.

“While they are very complex vehicles, I would say, from first-hand experience that they are as reliable as marine robotics can be. They operate in very difficult environments, but we are able to consistently use them in the manner that they were designed for with very minimal problems.” Richard Mills, Kongsberg Maritime’s Vice President Marine Robotics Sales, has been impressed with Ocean Infinity’s vision for developing a new sustainable marine sector based on autonomous vehicles. He says: “Ocean Infinity is unique in the industry, because they operate multiple vehicles concurrently from the same ship. So their approach to surveying with unmanned platforms is significantly more ambitious than any other operators out there at the moment.”

At present, Ocean Infinity operates three fuel-efficient command ships to deploy its 14 HUGINs, eight unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and six remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) on commercial survey projects. However, it’s planning to take the concept of autonomous surveying a quantum step forward with the development of robot surface ships that can, ultimately, operate and direct multiple AUVs, USVs and ROVs without a crew; the operations managed by a land-based control team via satellite.

Hugin launch

Josh says: “The Armada fleet is the next iteration of what we've done in the past. We've taken marine robotics and we've scaled them out from manned vessels, reducing the size of the vessels and their impact on the environment.

“Our ultimate aim is to have either a lightly crewed or completely uncrewed vessel that will also have the lightest touch on the environment.”

The idea started when the company undertook a project using three of its eight-metre ‘Sea Worker’ USVs, which it deployed from one of its motherships for a shallow water sea survey. They were able to reduce the project time by 25 per cent compared to a normal surface vessel using hull mounted sensors, so they looked at developing this further by having larger USVs which have more payload capacity, are more weather tolerant, and could deploy AUVs for surveys or even ROVs for the inspection of pipelines.

Josh adds: “We are also designing a 78-metre robot ship for the full spectrum of offshore operations. Running on modern propulsion technology and green fuels this could represent a revolution in marine transport and sustainability. For example, a 78-metre robot ship would have the deck space of a traditional 110-120-metre-long vessel, and that would represent a big reduction in fuel consumption, less CO2 emissions and a greener footprint for equal or greater capability.”

Looking at commercial markets, Josh believes the offshore energy sector, telecoms and undersea cables, and the trend towards offshore renewables will continue to play a big part in Ocean Infinity’s business, but the burgeoning area of unmanned logistics has great potential in the future, particularly in remote operations to carry cargo.

“I think it's important to note that autonomous systems are not only about de-crewing ships; it’s about creating new and safer jobs for the marine industry. They are not the same jobs but we think that they're going to be more interesting and safer, and that is going to help mould the marine industry of the future.” Josh Broussard