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Samuel John Hanton


Copyright 2012, Brazilian Petroleum, Gas and Biofuels Institute - IBP
This Technical Paper was prepared for presentation at the Rio Oi & Gas Expo and Conference 2012, held between September, 17-20, 2012, in Rio de Janeiro. This Technical Paper was selected for presentation by the Technical Committee of the event according to the information contained in the final paper submitted by the author(s). The organizers are not supposed to translate or correct the submitted papers. The material as it is presented, does not necessarily represent Brazilian Petroleum, Gas and Biofuels Institute’ opinion, or that of its Members or Representatives. Authors consent to the publication of this Technical Paper in the Rio Oil & Gas Expo and Conference 2012 Proceedings.

Acoustics SIMOPS - Managing the unnecessary
Time is money, and offshore operations are expensive. The desire therefore, is to increase efficiency through the condensing of schedules. This inevitably leads to SIMOPS of some degree, and this paper discusses SIMOPS along with, more specifically, the challenges they provide to acoustic positioning.

1. Introduction to SIMOPS and acoustic positioning
The definition of SIMOPS as per IMCA document M 203 – Guidance on Simultaneous Operations (SIMOPS) is: “2 or more potentially clashing operations occurring, for example, at the same time/same place” Under the list of contents for work specific dossiers the following is listed relating to acoustic positioning: “Acoustic method allocation and limitations. The acoustic systems used by each vessel working in the field should be identified. A process should be developed for the management of all acoustic positioning systems used in the field to avoid acoustic interference between vessels and their associated ROV and subsea tools and equipment.” This starts to introduce a considerable overhead of work, both onshore and offshore, and as will be discussed in this paper, alternatives do exist which can help to mitigate and reduce this planning effort.

Figure 1. SIMOPS Offshore

BSc (Hons), MRICS, MCInstCES, Chief Surveyor – NAUTRONIX

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2. Planning SIMOPS with Acoustics
Let’s start with “The acoustic systems used by each vessel working in the field should be identified.” A request was received by the Nautronix helpdesk earlier this year from a major contractor (and IMCA member) who were, to quote; “...working on a document named ‘Frequency management procedure’ to ensure that there is no SIMOPS between various parties’ transponders/ beacons frequencies that could impact the accuracy of the work.” The request was for operating frequencies for a Nautronix positioning system and had prompted an e-mail chain involving 5 people, 14 e-mails and 1 week before the request had reached Nautronix. That was for one vessel. Phase 2 is then to endeavour to develop a process for managing all of the acoustic systems in use. This generally involves the allocation of frequencies, or codes, to different users. Depending on the number of users this often then extends into code rationing – limiting the number of transponders which can be used by any one vessel. On the positive side the limitations of the acoustic systems are being managed to reduce the probability of them interfering with each other, and preventing positioning. However the downside is the number of objects which cannot be positioned, therefore increasing the number of ‘invisible’ objects subsea. So by reducing one risk, another is being increased. This situation is entirely normal in most projects, to some extent or another. If limited to only two vessels working in a SIMOPS situation, the responsibility for management of acoustics is often passed to the personnel on those vessels. For greater numbers of vessels this becomes unworkable and so onshore planning needs to be incorporated, leading to the challenges of communications seen in the example described above. In addition to the difficulty in finding an acceptable and safe solution for the planning activities, a further issue is the removal in flexibility of operations. If all of the non interfering codes have been assigned, where do you go when someone needs to position an additional item?

Figure 2. Traditional Frequency Management Planning 2.1 Multi-user Challenges Multi-user acoustic positioning is clearly one of the recognised challenges associated with SIMOPS, and along with the obvious interference risks of traditional acoustics systems, there are other concessions to be made when carrying out multi-user positioning. The frequency of position measurement is important for moving objects - obviously with slower updates in position the inaccuracy and uncertainty increases. Conventional acoustic systems are subject to a decrease in position

Rio Oil & Gas Expo and Conference 2012 update rate if more objects are to be simultaneously positioned, which for DP purposes reduces their credibility and for subsea positioning reduces the accuracy and usability. Battery life is also an important consideration – if the battery is used faster it obviously needs to be replaced, costing time and money, more frequently. Multiple interrogators of a seabed array will proportionally decrease the life of the battery which will certainly have cost impacts and can also cause significant schedule variations.

Figure 3. Acoustic Positioning Challenges These were key areas of focus during the development of the NASNet® system, which aimed to provide a truly multi-user system where multiple users could use a seabed array simultaneously with no risk of interference and no degradation in the performance, or battery life, of the system.

3. NASNet® Overview
NASNet® is essentially a long baseline (LBL) acoustic positioning system but the most fundamental improvement over conventional systems is in the method used to measure the ranges from which positions are subsequently calculated. Pulses are transmitted from NASNet® Stations at preset intervals, typically every 4-5 seconds. No interrogation of the Station is required to prompt a response, unlike conventional systems. This does, however, mean that the time each signal is transmitted must be known which therefore necessitates synchronization of all units to a common time reference.

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Figure 4 - LBL Concept The benefits provided through this approach are significant with respect to dynamic accuracy, latency, update rate and, in multi-user circumstances, battery life. The dynamic accuracy is, largely linked to latency – the age of the ranges used in the solution, and the age of the solution itself (position update rate). Use of 1-way ranging removes the majority of latency in the solution in 2 ways. Firstly the range itself is subject to no latency error when received by the positioned object; because the time of reception is timestamped. The second difference is that, because there is no fixed cycle of interrogation and receive, ranges can be entered into the position solution immediately as they are received, minimizing the latency between measurement of the range and calculation of the position. NASNet® uses each range as soon as it is received, replacing the previous range from the applicable Station, and therefore ensures a more up to date position solution. The other benefit of this approach is that the position is recomputed when any individual range is received, rather than waiting for a complete set of ranges to be received. This has the effect of increasing the frequency of position update significantly. The actual frequency is dependent on both the transmission rate of the Stations, and the number of Stations being used. An example using 5 Stations with a 5 second transmission interval would provide, on average, 1 Hz position updates. The same scenario but using 10 Stations would increase the update rate to 2Hz. This update rate is not only equal to GNSS, but better, meaning the NASNet® acoustic solution can be weighted as heavily as GNSS within a DP system. It can be seen that the increased update rate over conventional systems is not at the cost of battery life, as each Station is typically only transmitting every 5 seconds. A major gain over conventional approaches is in the multi-user environment when multiple users are using the same array. Even the latest generation conventional systems require additional interrogations and response for multiple users, and these impact drastically on battery life. By making use of the one way transmission technique multiple users can position from the same array with no increase in demand on the NASNet® Stations, as each pulse can be received and used by an unlimited number of receivers.

3.1 Planned SIMOPS Example An example of a project with limited SIMOPS was on a West African project, where a large construction vessel carried out 4 months of installation work offshore Nigeria. The SIMOPS aspect during this campaign was provided by the presence of a semi submersible drilling rig, also in the field at the same time. The construction vessel was using the NASNet® positioning system as its primary, high accuracy, acoustic system, but was also making use of the vessel’s USBL system for tracking winch wires and TMS. The drilling rig was using a conventional LBL system for DP, but a simple mistake when setting the USBL beacon channel resulted in interference between the two systems although, on this occasion, fortunately without significant consequences. Often where high accuracy positioning SIMOPS are planned an approach of deploying transponder frames with multiple receptacles (buckets) is taken. This allows an element of consistency between systems but also allows multiple systems to be deployed simultaneously. The allocation of the codes used by the different frequencies is then managed. Although this can, subject to sufficient non-interfering codes being available, allow SIMOPS acoustic positioning it is

Rio Oil & Gas Expo and Conference 2012 clearly an inefficient approach with potentially 3 or 4 times as many transponders being used, with the associated time and cost increase from their deployment and recovery.

Figure 5. Multiple transponders in a frame 3.2 Experiences of NASNet® in deepwater Gulf of Mexico project More recently a major international construction contractor used the NASNet® system on a deepwater GoM project, with two of their vessels, using NASNet® for ROV and subsea structure position. In this project the multi-user benefits and cost savings of using a single system were identified by the Operator, who provided the system on the seabed for all contractors to use. As such, vessel had only to activate their receivers on vessels and ROVs to gain subsea positioning anywhere in the field. Feedback was provided from the vessels, combining the views from survey crews, ROV teams and construction supervisors. Their key points were summarised as follows: “Positioning been excellent throughout the project.” Obviously however ‘multi-user’ a system may be, it needs to be first and foremost able to position with the quality required. The system operated reliably and consistently, providing good repeatability when verification position fixes were taken. “Time was saved during umbilical lay due to having good positioning throughout.” The point made here refers to the fact that LBL coverage was provided field-wide and therefore high accuracy, fast updating positions provided a greater level of confidence to lay faster than the usual approach of stopping at regular intervals to take position fixes with a less reliable positioning system. “Time was saved due to the pre installed ‘array’.” Time was saved by all Contractors working on the project. “The full coverage of an area 10km by 5km (50km2) was achieved with only 13 NASNet stations. If conventional LBL had been used to achieve the same coverage in excess of 40 units would have been utilised.” This comment is self explanatory – obviously a much higher number of units would have been time consuming and costly to install and maintain. “This would have resulted in several separate array calibrations and links. Additionally with the multiple vessels in field conventional LBL would have been difficult to manage.” Larger numbers of conventional LBL transponders bring about the increased management requirements previously discussed and introduce additional complexity, as well as lack of consistency to positioning. “For large field positional coverage with sub metre accuracy during tracking NASNet is far superior to conventional LBL.” The offshore crews felt the system was simpler to use and provided more reliable, stable positioning than conventional systems. The ROV crews felt that the greatest benefits were in the speed of position update in deepwater, making it easier to follow a route consistently. “For vehicle tracking and sub meter accuracy at depth NASNet is far simpler to use and once the ‘array’ is installed it has a longer lifespan subsea in comparison to a constantly interrogated conventional LBL array.” The lifespan was relevant on this project, where the total deployment was over 2 years. The views from these offshore users of the system on the project were universally positive. However planned SIMOPS is only one scenario, and consideration has to be given to unplanned situations.

Rio Oil & Gas Expo and Conference 2012 3.3 Unexpected SIMOPS Unexpected or unplanned SIMOPS can encompass a scale of situations from the requirement to accurately position, for example, 2 ROVS instead of one from the same vessel, through to needing to position multiple vessels unexpectedly. In may not be the case that SIMOPS were not planned, rather that the scale of SIMOPS were not anticipated. Beyond question the most significant, and high profile, SIMOPS challenge to date arose from the Macondo incident. Multiple vessels, ROVS and subsea items working in extreme close proximity provided ‘worse than the worst case scenario’ challenges from various standpoints, including subsea positioning. To the credit of all involved, and through an enormous effort of planning and management, sufficient positioning was provided to allow the necessary operations to continue. As the industry revisits its crisis management procedures and assesses again the worst case scenarios, it is time to examine the options for improving acoustic positioning in extreme SIMOPS situations. The main challenges posed were:  Number of objects to be positioned  Ensuring no acoustic interference The first step in such a situation is generally to reduce the number of objects to be positioned, by identifying critical and non-critical positioning requirements. In extreme circumstances the ‘critical’ point may be different from less extreme situations. For example some vessels may not ‘have’ to use acoustics into their DP system, and some ROVs may not ‘have’ to be acoustically positioned. So by restricting the number of objects being acoustically positioned the situation can be managed to fit the limitations of the acoustic positioning systems. By deployment of a number of different sets of subsea transponders it may be possible for different objects to be positioned relative to different transponder arrays. A ROVSV would typically use between 8 and 10 USBL channels for positioning, with a minimum of 2 ROVS, back-up transponders, TMS, crane wires and DP. During operations at Macondo this was reduced to 4 channels, and extremely close operations between a number of ROVS were carried out, as could be seen on the public web feeds. Positioning in this case was primarily a matter of ensuring navigation was carried out safely and efficiently, rather than a traditional ‘survey’ task. The traditional limitations of vessel based systems in deep water were clearly evident with unstable positioning and very slow update rates of the ROV positions.

Figure 5. SIMOPS Overview at Macondo

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4. Conclusions
It is clear that use of a single broadcast system would provide significant benefits to any positioning SIMOPS situations, from a number of perspectives including safety, operation efficiency and management overhead. It is equally clear that the challenge from operators and contractors is to acknowledge and embrace the opportunity for improvement, and to at least include the option of the use of this type of system onboard their vessels and rigs. SIMOPS may be unexpected, but they should never be unplanned.