The National Oceanography Centre (NOC) has secured £670,000 in funding for a research project that will take robot submarine Boaty McBoatface around end-of-life oil and gas fields.

The Autonomous Techniques for infraStructure Ecological Assessment (AT-SEA) project will trial the concept of using submarines like Boaty for high-tech, low-impact monitoring to pick up any potential environmental impacts at oil and gas fields.

The project team will carry out the first robotic mission in summer 2022.

The Autosub Long-Range ocean robot submarine, known as Boaty McBoatface, will be launched from the shore in Shetland to carry out environmental assessments at three decommissioning sites in the northern North Sea.

The robot will then return around 10 days later with the survey information onboard. It will take photos of the seabed, which will be automatically stitched together to make a map of the seafloor, structures present, and the animals that live there.

In addition to decommissioned sites, the robot will visit a special marine protected area that is known to have natural leaks of gas, to check the robot can reliably detect a leak should one occur in the future.

Upon return to shore, the project team will examine the obtained data and compare it to that gathered using standard survey ship methods. The team will also test if the same environmental trends can be identified from both datasets to determine if the automated approach would be a suitable replacement for standard survey ship operations.

The funding was allocated by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

“There are currently thousands of oil and gas industry structures in the sea that are approaching the end of their lives. As part of decommissioning, they typically need to be removed and the environment returned to a safe state. Environmental surveys may be required over many years after decommissioning, especially if some structures are left in place. Surveys that are needed in an offshore environment are expensive and time-consuming, requiring support from ships and many specialist seagoing personnel,” said project lead Daniel Jones from NOC.

“This industry-leading technology has the potential to change the way marine surveys are carried out in the future. Autonomous submarines could offer many advantages over current approaches; improving the quality and quantity of environmental information while cutting the cost and environmental impact for a survey ship and its crew.”

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