UnderWater Magazine

Article reprint: Fall 1995
"Transfer of Technology & Capabilities Between The Offshore Underwater Industry and Space Based Industry"
By F. Richard Frisbie, P.E., Sr. Vice President, Marketing & Technology, Oceaneering Intl.

An interchange of ideas, techniques, procedures, hardware, and personnel between the offshore underwater industry and the space based industry has taken place over the last 40 years. It is difficult to determine which has benefited most from this exchange. In the end, both benefit, and will continue to benefit as we move into the future. Although there are significant differences between the two industries, there are striking similarities. The similarities are the harsh environments; the dramatic impact of shortcomings, deficiencies or failures; and the fact that both industries have a great romantic attraction. Equally profound are the differences, mainly stemming from the environments. Subsea is faced with a dynamic, changing environment: increasing pressure, total absence of light, currents, visual conditions ranging from limited to zero; and the corrosive, invasive aspects of salt water. Space is faced with different, but equally challenging conditions: visibility is generally excellent (half the time you have bright sunlight, often too bright, the rest of the time you have absolute darkness); extreme changes in temperature; ever-present danger of micrometeorite impacts which can be deadly; great distances; and the total absence of a fixed connection between you and your earth-based operational centers.

A History of Cooperation

Going back to the initial successes in subsea, we find many of the players at that time were defense/aerospace contractors such as Lockheed, Hughes Aerospace, General Dynamics, and Westinghouse. These companies used their technological strength in controls, structural design, hydromechanics, and project management to become pioneers in the development of subsea systems, some of which are used in such places as the Santa Barbara Channel, the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil. Hughes Aerospace formed Hughes Offshore and was a subsea hardware manufacturer for an extended period of time. Lockheed Aircraft formed Lockheed Petroleum, which eventually became CanOcean, and developed the subsea one-atmosphere production manifold and wellhead designs and hardware which were used in the Gulf of Mexico and more broadly in Brazil. This one-atmosphere technology was also being developed by the Seal Group in Europe.

As time went on, the slow growth of the subsea opportunity and the fact that the hardware production would never be great, particularly in the 70's and 80's, led these aerospace/defense contractors to pursue other opportunities. This was also a period of tremendous growth in the defense/aerospace business. At that time a number of engineers and managers from these aerospace/defense contractors stayed with the subsea element and many of them became significant contributors in the development of subsea production capabilities.


As the subsea industry evolved, Oceaneering and the subsea industry developed a broad range of engineering, hardware, installation, IMR, and intervention techniques evolving from diver-based to one-atmosphere to robotics. In addition we developed a sophisticated analytical capability for defining subsea work, and for developing the most efficient and cost effective methodology of executing this work based on the various types of work systems available. We developed interface technologies and hardware which allowed a series of remotely operated vehicles and work packages to perform inspections, maintenance, replacement and repair on deepwater subsea satellite facilities. The first integrated example of this was the Placid-Green Canyon 29 template in 1,500 ft. of water, which had over 400 tasks that were carried out and/or supported by remotely operated vehicles. Using a series of tools and tooling packages, the Green Canyon 29 development was the basis for significant proof of concept, and a confidence builder in the use of ROVs to support deepwater facilities beyond the depth of human intervention. The evolution of this capability has continued into water depths greater than 3,000 ft. The Norsk Hydro Troll Oseberg Gas Injection(TOGI) project set an industry standard in the North Sea for ROV intervention in deepwater facilities. These projects became the basis for a broad range of subsea facilities which oil companies have installed over the years and are being supported by a series of remotely operated vehicles and a variety of interfaces and tooling packages.

Oceaneering's ROVs now carry out extended work programs in 25,000 ft. of water using a series of five different ROV systems. Essentially the ability to carry out work in the oceans is now independent of depth. What has yet to be implemented is the work task analytics which Oceaneering developed to define work tasks, to quantify difficulty, to establish limiting factors, and to identify which variables can be changed to reduce the difficulty and or cost of any individual subsea task. This analytic methodology has been expanded and is a powerful tool which will find significant use as the costs and difficulties associated with more sophisticated subsea facilities become apparent.

Transfer of Technology

In the mid 1980's, Oceaneering determined that there was an opportunity to take our subsea work expertise and expand it into a space-based business with NASA and major aerospace contractors. We viewed the capabilities that we had developed to be analogous to those which will be required on satellite repairs, space station maintenance and repair, and other space based projects. With this in mind, Oceaneering Space Systems was set up with four subsea engineers. The individual selected to run it, Mike Gernhardt, an oilfield diver and development engineer with diving, life support and robotic experiences, is now an astronaut and made his first shuttle flight in September. We used the subsea techniques, technologies, hardware, and capabilities we had developed to show NASA a proven way of executing work similar to what they were just beginning to face as they developed their new space based facilities. Our experience, good and bad, over the years led to safe, reliable, cost-effective work capabilities, starting with diver intervention and moving on to one-atmosphere systems, such as WASP, and culmination with remotely operated systems and a series of sophisticated tooling work tasks and interfaces. This experience and expertise was directly applicable to the evolutionary cycle that NASA was beginning to enter.

Work Task Analytics

In conjunction with TRW we used our subsea work task system methodology to develop a sophisticated task complexity algorithm (TCA) which analyzed the task to be performed through a series of methodologies to come up with a way to define a task or difficulty, to define the variables, and to analyze how modifying the variables would reduce the complexity, time or cost of executing any specific task. This task complexity algorithm was then tested using a large number of subsea operators to verify the mathematical model, and its ability to evaluate a task and to predict how the changing of any single variable would reduce the task difficulty. This testing showed a high correlation and verified that the TCA accurately reflects the reality of a situation. In addition, we see an opportunity to take this highly evolved TCA and reapply it to our subsea based work task, particularly as the complexity of the subsea tasks increases and the need to train operators for more sophisticated work techniques increases. The TCA will allow us to determine the baseline requirements and the most efficient work techniques and equipment. This can then be applied to the task-specific training of operators. The result will not only be saving of time and money, but also that operators will be trained on the specific aspects of the work which in fact are critical to success.

Manipulator Systems

Oceaneering developed the Remote Manipulator System (RMS) force reflecting manipulator, in conjunction with General Electric, in the early 80's for use on our one atmospheric arms bell to carry out drilling support and construction work in deep water. The RMS was first used in our two-man submarines and later transferred to our remotely operated vehicle systems to carry out an increasingly sophisticated work. This evolution from Manned Systems to Remote Systems allowed us to make the difficult transition to manipulator based work performances by initially having a man in the loop while we better defined, understood, and sorted out the methodology and tooling required to use manipulator systems to execute work previously carried out by drivers.

We've subsequently used this technology in the development of DYNACLAMP, the subsea industry's first robotic system that could clean and inspect platform tubular nodes. NASA has a requirement on Space Station specifically for a sophisticated manipulator system to carry out a range of IMR tasks. It has evolved from the Flight Telerobotic Services (FTS) into the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator. SPDM has dual working manipulators with a third manipulator which is used to attach SPDM to the worksite interface. There is a remarkable, almost uncanny, similarity in the geometry and layout of the SPDM when one looks at the DYNACLAMP and the dual GE arm work station capability that Oceaneering originally developed for NASA known as the RTAIL. The RTAIL uses two standard Oceaneering force reflective manipulators with an upgraded control system to incorporate the sophistication required by NASA to carry out some extremely precise and repeatable tasks. The RTAIL has been used for a number of years in NASA's test tanks to verify work tasks, verify components, verify interface docking and latching mechanisms and to develop training techniques and procedures intended for use with SPDM when it becomes operational in the late 90's. In addition, the knowledge of Oceaneering's subsea operators was incorporated into the spectrum of evolving work capability for NASA.

The ability to take subsea manipulators with modifications and incorporate them into the basis of NASA's robotic work capability reinforces the direct analogy and transferability of subsea capabilities to space. In addition, this allowed us to incorporate, test and refine the task complexity algorithm utilizing manipulator configurations very similar to what ultimately will be used on Space Station. We expect to transfer the control and simulation technologies we are learning in OSS back to our subsea business in the near future.

Tooling Transferability

In the area of tooling there has been a similar transferability from subsea to space-based applications. In the mid 1980's on the TOGI project in Norway, Oceaneering developed the All Purpose Intervention Interface (APII) docking system which allowed an ROV with tools to dock to the subsea site in a single operation. Valve actuation, hydraulic connections, electrical signal connections, etc. were all incorporated into this single docking interface. Once docked, the work task could be executed with no further ROV activities required. The APII interface also allows subsea equipment to be designed without constraints on spacing or geometry for ROV docking as the APII (or Oceaneering bucket as it is better known), can be installed at whatever location and in whichever configuration is required to best suit the subsea hardware. This flexibility means that there are no re-engineering and costs associated with converting subsea equipment to a robotic supported capability. The Oceaneering bucket was the basis for what has become NASA's standard docking interface on space system, the Microconical. The Microconical is a miniature version of the Oceaneering bucket with changes in size and configuration associated with the types of hardware and loads involved with space-based operations. Space-based operations, because of the zero gravity and because equipment must be designed to be as lightweight as practical, involve low impact loads and forces at the mating surfaces. The result is that the size and strength of space components can be significantly reduced from that of the subsea where a 4,000 lb. ROV exerting up to 1,000 lb. of load typifies the level of load and force involved. However, the concept and the basic design are all analogous between the Oceaneering bucket and the Oceaneering Miroconical. In addition, we have supplied over 2,000 Oceaneering buckets to the subsea industry. The use of the Microconical will approach 600; there are even similarities in the extent of application.

Other tooling involves the use of the ACFM inspection techniques. ACFM was developed for the subsea inspection of platforms and pipelines. We have taken this technology, refined it and repackaged for use in the inspection of space station structural elements, such as fuel lines.

Life Support

Some of the life support technologies of subsea are beginning to be applied to space-based applications. Over the past forty years we've seen the evolution from scuba through a series of re-breathers to the present day sophisticated mixed gas saturation diving techniques. Oceaneering has been an industry leader in the evolution of the capability of life support systems for saturation diving. Subsea engineering involved in the development of subsea life support and decompression technology have developed a system to be used in NASA's WetF and NBL facilities. This Neutral Buoyancy Portable Life Support System (NBPLSS) uses liquid air for the breathing medium. In addition, and equally as important, it uses the liquid air flowing through a cooling garment to cool the subject. The absorption of the subject's body heat is used in the conversion of the liquid air to gaseous air for breathing. The NBPLSS was developed specifically for use in NASA's neutral buoyancy facility where astronauts train. Normally they use a life support system with umbilical to provide the cooling medium for an astronaut training in the warm water tank. The use of umbilical is awkward and can provide a false replication of the tasks which will be carried out in space in that the umbilical can act as restraints, sometimes a hindrance, other times beneficial. The NBPLSS is totally self contained and requires no umbilical. It is only the third life support system that NASA has certified as man rated. This NBPLSS life support technology using liquid air as a cooling and breathing medium is also being developed for use in the fire fighting industry where heat prostration is one of the limiting factors on the fire fighter, particularly those who have to enter high rise buildings and expend high levels of energy without the presence of cooling.

Inspection Maintenance and Repair Expertise

The offshore business has for the past 40 years had to develop sophisticated long term inspection, maintenance and repair programs for their offshore structures. This led to an extensive analysis of the original design criteria, construction techniques, installation techniques, as well as the long term inspection, maintenance and repair. It also led to evaluating the true life cycle cost associated with long term assets. This experience and expertise is being looked at by NASA as being applicable to the space station. Up to this time there has been no long duration, large scale, space-based facility that had requirements for inspection, maintenance, and repair over many years. Until recently hardware launched into space with a long life requirement were self sustaining with the exceptional high levels of redundancy. There was no inspection, maintenance or repair capability. Reliability had to be obtained through extensive ‚ and costly ‚ redundancy, testing and sophisticated design and manufacturing techniques which in themselves can often lead to difficulties with reliability. However, with Space Station there will be a need for a 30 year life with continually changing hardware due to life cycle growth. As a result there is now a more fundamental approach to the life cycle cost and the life cycle inspection, maintenance, and repair requirements need to be adapted. The subsea industry is an excellent analog and is being used accordingly.

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