March 2017, Vol. 244, No. 3


Dolphin-Inspired Sensors Improve Detection

Special to Pipeline & Gas Journal

Sensor technology inspired by Bottlenose Dolphins could help extend the life of oil and gas pipelines by using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to detect blockages, thanks to a new collaborative research project in Scotland.

The initiative, which involves Heriot-Watt University’s Ocean Systems Laboratory, high-tech sonar and underwater systems company, Hydrason Solutions, and CENSIS, the Scottish Innovation Center for sensor and imaging systems, will develop an enhanced wideband sonar system based on the principles of the marine mammals’ detection capabilities.

Using signal processing techniques gleaned from previous research conducted on Bottlenose Dolphins, the project will dramatically improve the range of data collected by wideband sonar devices. The technology will enable users to accurately locate underwater objects, as well as identify their structure and composition, without making any direct contact. Existing sensor products cannot penetrate objects, instead providing only an image outline.

The system could have a variety of applications, helping surveyors to find blockages in pipelines, determine whether an underwater support is still structurally sound or identify wildlife on the seabed.

“Bottlenose dolphins are extremely good at detecting objects in the water – using sonar they can detect fish in the sand which can’t be seen by the eye. Earlier research also showed that dolphins can differentiate between the contents of a variety of filled aluminium bottles using signal processing,” said Keith Brown, associate professor at Heriot-Watt’s School of Engineering & Physical Sciences.

In addition to providing users with additional information, the system will be deployable on a range of nautical vehicles, including autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and ROVs. Multiple surveys can be conducted from one ship, making the device an economic way of collecting data.

“We analyzed the characteristics of these signals and, using transducers, have reproduced frequencies within the same parameters: as close as possible to those created by dolphins. This breakthrough means our new wideband sonar system can provide its users with even greater environmental, seabed and structural detail,” said Brown. “It could, for example, be used to detect a range of underwater objects, hairline cracks in oil rigs’ support legs or changes to the sediment on the seafloor.”

The project has the potential to give Hydrason Solutions an important advantage in its existing and new markets. It already has a strong presence in the military and energy sectors, while the new system could also be used for applications in fisheries and surveying across the globe.

“The enhanced system has a range of potential uses, both in our existing markets and new ones. It presents us with a great opportunity in fisheries, for example, where it could be used to monitor the health of prawn beds,” said Chris Capus, chief executive of Hydrason Solutions. “In markets where we have an established presence, like oil and gas, it can be used to detect what’s inside objects, such as checking whether an object contains hydrocarbons or other substances.”

In addition, there could be benefits for the wider Scottish supply chain, including new business development opportunities for Hydrason’s manufacturing partners.

“This system will set a new standard in acoustic object detection and identification in complex subsea environments. It could also reduce the costs of expensive surveys, through a range of efficiencies and as part of a wider transition toward autonomous working. In many industries, acoustic surveys are going on all the time – particularly as oil rigs, pipelines and other installations begin to be decommissioned. The opportunities for companies to cut costs are huge,” Capus said.


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