A robotic boat has been used for the first time to survey fish populations around oil platforms in the North Sea.
The robotic boat, known as an Uncrewed Surface Vessel (USV), owned and operated by ocean data company XOCEAN, used sonar to collect data on fish numbers around several oil platforms off Scotland’s north-east coast. Its part of a research project led by University of Aberdeen, looking at the effects of decommissioning oil and gas structures on marine ecosystems.
Around the size of an average car (4.5 metres), the robotic boat is able to get within 10m of a platform – significantly closer than a conventional ship.
The survey was led by Dr Joshua Lawrence, from the University of Aberdeen. He said:
“The survey was a great success. After months of planning and working closely with XOCEAN and the platform operators, it was great to finally see the Uncrewed Surface Vehicle collecting data.
“It’s amazing how this sort of technology reveals new opportunities to advance our understanding of these structures and their influences on the North Sea ecosystem.
“Previous work has suggested that fish aggregate up to several kilometres away from some of these structures, so we designed the survey to make approaches to the structures from 10 km away in each direction.’
The next stage of the project will see Dr Dougie Speirs and Prof Mike Heath from the University of Strathclyde use the survey data to model the expected effects of a range of decommissioning strategies on the surveyed fish populations.
Dr Speirs said:
“The data coming out of this survey is providing us with an exceptional high-resolution picture of what is happening to fish distributions around marine installations.
“It was fascinating to see real-time online images from the USV, and the resulting data will be invaluable as we construct our fish population models.”
Founded in 2017, XOCEAN works with a range of partners to collect data in the marine environment. Their CEO James Ives said:
“Conducting survey campaigns using USVs not only enables the collection of the highest possible resolution data, but it allows that to happen in a way that is safe, carbon neutral and economical for our clients.”
Ithaca Energy have been active in the North Sea since 2008. Based on production, it is the second largest UK North Sea independent operator and fifth largest UK producer.
Paul Shearer, Environment Team Lead, from Ithaca Energy was delighted to have supported the project. He said:
“It is important that quality data and science is available to enable more informed decisions to be taken in how the offshore energy industry interacts with the marine ecosystem. We look forward to supporting the project in future work.”
Professor Paul Fernandes from the University of Aberdeen, the lead researcher on the project, explained why these data are so important. He said:
“Fish have long been known to gather at offshore structures.
“However, the extent of this aggregation, and whether it leads to an increase in productivity to benefit our fish stocks, remains unclear.
“Offshore oil and gas platforms act as de facto marine protected areas, so we are aiming to quantify the extent to which the increased numbers of fish found there spill over into the surrounding waters.”
The project, and the INSITE programme, will run until 2023, and the team will be running similar surveys of more oil platforms using the USV next summer.