Roy Torgersen, founder of Nido Robotics told MJ there’s already been a change of plan: “Today, we’re calling it ‘robots at your service’, providing the ROVs and basic training.” Tomorrow, however, the robot will let you know about its own discoveries.

When it started back in 2016, the team focused on the affordability of high-quality visual data “but during the next three to four years, we discovered that a lot of companies were depending on external resources for underwater inspection”, he explained.

As a result, while the Sibiu Nano was gaining a sophisticated, eight-thruster ‘Pro’ sister for 300m depths and the company began picking up development awards, another line of thought began to emerge.

“While you can carry out regular inspections, it doesn’t entirely stop things breaking down when you least expect it,” remarked Torgersen: “Having the tools onsite makes a big difference.”

It can also return surprising savings: “One customer is using them on power plant pipes: they first thought they’d just be saving money on divers,” he explained. But more responsive checks showed that anti-biofouling flushes weren’t required as regularly as previously assumed. This didn’t just lower the plant’s environmental impact, “it also saved as much as half a million dollars a year” said Torgersen: “Nobody really expected that.”

Recently, he’s seen increased demand from vessel owners “because you can inspect when you have the opportunity… even carrying out hull cleaning or anode changes with no external resources”.

But there are also a rising number of assets being deployed by offshore energy and renewables, which will eventually demand a change of approach: “I think the underwater industry is going to have to make the technology truly autonomous,” he said.

It is, he explained, down to the physics: radio frequencies can’t penetrate water, so remote, real-time operation – of the kind utilised by airborne drones – is likely not practically achieved.

As a result, while there will still be some niche, manual systems, the rest will be intelligent “and capable of navigating, detecting issues and making certain decisions themselves”, he explained. However, the revolution is likely to initially proceed in bite-sized chunks: for example, the company’s next step is a ROV reporting system able to recognise and automatically mark points of interest.

“It’s an exciting time, in the next 10 to 15 years we are going to see some huge technology leaps,” said Torgersen, and added: “A lot of companies are working on different subsets of this problem, so I believe a lot of issues are going to be solved more or less simultaneously.” In fact Nido Robotics is itself quietly working on a future underwater ‘drone garage’ principle, providing information upload and recharging capacity.

He pointed out: “Robotics today is a little like computing in the 80s: back then, only the big Fortune 500 companies could really afford it – but now you have the same capacity on every desk.”

By Stevie Knight

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