Lair of robot sea snake: In the depths, this autonomous guardian lies ready to work

An underwater autonomous vehicle is being tested deep in a Norwegian fjord before moving to offshore oil fields.

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The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) has opened its deepest ever laboratory.

It sits 365 meters (1,197ft) below the surface of the Trondheim fjord and houses a charging station and a facility for testing autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs.

These robots are considered the next generation of vehicles for underwater operations, ultimately replacing deep-sea divers and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

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The AUV research is being conducted by the university's center for autonomous marine operations and systems (AMOS), which has been operating since 2012.

AUV applications lie in underwater operations for the oil and gas industry. But the vehicles could also have a role in sea farming, the shipping industry, and the offshore wind-farm sector.

The first AUV to use the new lab is the 'snake robot' Eelume, developed by a Norwegian company of the same name, which was a spin-off from NTNU in 2015.

This AUV can be operated with and without the thick umbilical cables associated with traditional ROVs, and due to its unconventional shape, it can get into the narrowest of places.

Eelume is in essence a self-propelled robotic arm, which has an eerie resemblance to an eel in the water. The robot is designed to stay permanently under water, laying in readiness on the seafloor near subsea installations.

When called on, it can conduct detailed inspections, maintenance, and intervention at very short notice, independent of surface ship availability.

The Eelume is designed with a modular system for tools, so it can mount a gripping tool to pick something up, a torque tool to close a valve, a cleaning tool or a couple of different sensors.

To keep the robot in constant readiness for all types of job, it needs to have access to a tool store and a charging station, which are both provided by the new lab.

The startup behind Eelume was partly funded by Norway's state oil company Equinor, previously named Statoil.

When the testing and shakedown period in the new underwater lab is finished, the AUV will start a longer pilot period on Åsgard, an oil and gas field in the Norwegian sea where Equinor is the operator company.

There the robot will be a permanent resident on the seafloor, serving as a "janitor" near the subsea installations on depths from 240 meters to 310 meters (787ft to 1,017ft) below the surface.

eelume-ekstrabilde-u-tekst1.jpg

Eelume is in essence a self-propelled robotic arm, which has an eerie resemblance to an eel in the water.  

Image: Eelume