Solutions for another world…
Core business: Underwater wireless acoustic systems, specialising in through-water communication and positioning technologies for the offshore industry.
Location: Aberdeen (plus offices in Houston and Rio de Janeiro)
Customers: Oil & gas industry, defence
Turnover: £13 million
Solutions for another world
Even though Nautronix is headquartered in Aberdeen and most of its customers operate in the North Sea, most of its products are being used thousands of miles away – and thousands of metres under the sea. In fact, according to Chief Technologist Nigel Orr, some underwater environments are so remote and so extreme, they may as well be on a different planet. This may seem a fanciful comparison, but divers returning from deep-water dives can take up to two weeks to return to the surface, while astronauts take only a couple of days to fly back from the moon.
Remote and difficult environments are also where Nautronix technology has been most successful, providing communications and positioning solutions for the oil and gas industry, operating in deep-water locations all around the world, at depths up to 3,000–5,000 metres.
The company can trace its roots back to 1977, when it developed its first tracking pipeline pigs – devices which travel through pipelines for inspection and maintenance work.
It was a pioneer in electromagnetic and magnetic detectors, and the more sophisticated tracking pigs developed since then have now become off-the-shelf products which still win ‘bread-and-butter’ sales for Nautronix.
In 1996, Nautronix established itself as a leader in DSP-based (DSP = digital signal processing) helium speech unscramblers – devices that enable operators to communicate with saturation divers by compensating for the high-pitched voice effect caused by breathing helium. The human voice is formed by a combination of resonances in the larynx and the mouth cavity, and the sounds from the mouth cavity are affected by helium. The resulting ‘Mickey Mouse’ sound effect may be amusing at first, but makes communication very difficult with divers undertaking difficult and dangerous work under water.
The unscramblers perform a complex task, reducing the frequency of some tones (i.e. lowering the pitch) while leaving other tones the same, so speech sounds normal. The resulting product has consistently scored 98% intelligibility on tough industry standard testing, (i.e. 98 words out of every 100 are clearly understood).
The company was also an early developer of commercial spread-spectrum communication and positioning systems. In the shallow waters of the North Sea, communication and positioning systems are relatively simple, in depths of less than 100 metres, but as soon as you begin to operate at greater depths, new problems emerge (depths of 3,000m are common in modern oil production operations across the world)
What makes Nautronix technology stand out, says Orr, is its track record in signal processing systems, including subsea digital acoustic communications – for example, where customers need to replace expensive, heavy and damage-prone subsea cables with a reliable wireless communication channel, or accurately track the position of large, moving objects being installed in deep water.
In the last ten years, the product range has extended to include blowout preventer controls – remote communications devices which are used as back-up to shut down subsea valves (and prevent leaks) when the primary control system fails in an emergency. In this situation, hundreds of lives and an environmental catastrophe can be at stake, and the industry trust in the NASeBOP product range is testament to the high reliability that it provides.
“The ability to overcome communication difficulties in hostile environments is our biggest strength,” says Orr. The problems faced include limited bandwidth, long path delays and extreme Doppler shift, high noise levels in-band from vessels and engineering operations, and full ocean-depth operations. “We are also a small company compared to our major competitors, and this means we can be more flexible in responding to industry needs,” says Orr.
When the position of ROVs and subsea equipment needs to be accurately tracked, the NASNet® system creates a grid of position reference beacons. These are dropped to the seabed from a boat, which then circles the area to establish their position, typically to a precision of a few tens of centimetres. The NASNet® GPS-like positioning technology developed by Nautronix also makes it possible to space out the beacons at a distance of several kilometres, while alternative systems have to be positioned a few hundred metres apart, and this means significant savings and speeds up deployment.
The solutions which Nautronix has developed include true independent multi-user communications using spread spectrum. This means they avoid the need to have a synchronised network to decide who can communicate and when. As a result, when multiple vessels need to work in an area (e.g. in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon incident), they can freely share the NASNet® system through the area without interference, to improve redundancy for surface vessels and as a sole reference for ROVs and other equipment subsea.
The high reliability and potential for covert operation underlying the communication and positioning systems was originally developed by Nautronix for military applications, where it enabled submarine communications to be undetectable above background noise levels. While today’s work focuses on the industrial and commercial market, the same products have been used successfully to provide tracking and communications in submarine ranges during trials.
Accuracy and availability are critical factors for positioning systems. Surface vessels needing an accurate fixed position have to supplement their differential GPS (DGPS) system (which can be affected by phenomena such as scintillation – spikes in solar activity which cause interference) with additional independent sources. Nautronix builds high levels of redundancy into its NASNet® DPR systems, and provides typical positioning accuracy of one metre. “Unplanned downtime is unacceptable,” says Orr. “With offshore vessels costing up to $1 million a day, the pressure to fix any problems increases rapidly”
“We provide high-quality solutions for difficult environments,” says Orr. “And the more difficult the problem is, the more it requires Nautronix.” Orr believes that engineers in Scotland are undertaking “ground-breaking research” in subsea technologies, and with deep-water exploration and extraction becoming more common as the oil and gas companies widen their search for new fields, Nautronix and its academic partners are well placed to take full advantage – whether they are based in Aberdeen, Houston or Rio de Janeiro.
Nautronix recently set up a new technology department to manage knowledge transfer between engineering, academia and customers, and help to plan future product developments. According to Chief Technologist Nigel Orr, there is huge potential for cooperation with Scottish universities, where there is significant expertise in areas such as communications and signal processing. Over the last five years, Nautronix has increased the headcount in its engineering department from 12 to 26 people, to rise to the challenge.
According to Orr, the offshore industry is generally conservative when it comes to introducing new technology, but when there is an opportunity to save time and money, and improve productivity, customers do start to listen. In the past, Nautronix tended to be more “reactive” when it came to the development of any new products, with incremental changes mainly led by customer requests, rather than offering the potential of totally new applications.
The new approach complements that responsiveness by being more proactive and forward-looking, says Orr, finding out early if customers are interested in new possibilities that they might not expect Nautronix can offer– for example, how about controlling 150 valves with a single device, instead of only sixteen valves, as at present? Would that be useful? What about sending data subsea over much larger distances?
Recent product developments include the extension of the NASeBOP product range to enhance the capability of the company’s blowout preventer controls, which was recently awarded the Subsea 2012 Innovation and Technology Award. Also in development are upgrades of the existing product range to benefit from developments in signal processing and communications to improve lifetime and capabilities, and the NASMUX product range to provide primary acoustic control of subsea equipment.