The Magazine for Underwater Professionals

Jan/Feb 2018


Task is king

A focus on task resolution is reshaping the future of electric underwater robotics and could make vehicle class obsolete, predicts Matt Bates, director of UK-based electric underwater systems specialist Saab Seaeye

At NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory tank in Houston, the iCON-enabled autonomous Sabertooth demonstrated its ability to remotely execute subsea intervention tasks, such as closing a subsea valve using an electric torque tool - the first ever attempted by an AUV

Operators everywhere face complex challenges in a dynamic, ever-changing und-erwater operational environment as they seek the best solution to task resolution.

Now a breakthrough concept has emerged that focuses specifically on task resolution rather than class of underwater vehicle. The result is to configure electric robotic systems precisely and directly to satisfy whatever task is envisaged, at the lowest real cost.

It is likely that this concept of transformative robotics will make irrelevant the conventional classification of underwater vehicles such as observation- and work-class.

Advances in intelligent control and miniaturisation make this evolution possible by creating electric robotic systems that are smaller, smarter, lighter, more agile and more powerful.

The core construct behind transformative robotics is intelligent, behaviour-based control system architecture, which we term iCON. It enables the creation of hardware and software building blocks that can be rapidly configured and customised to achieve a particular solution. It also allows harmonious migration of options across different systems and accelerates new developments and innovation.


Operators welcome a concept based on building blocks that effectively enables them to rapidly fashion an off-the-shelf, modular, yet customised solution, that is flexible in design and use and vastly extends the range of task resolution opportunities, whilst also bringing considerable cost savings.

The gestation of iCON has a proven pedigree. It came some 15 years ago with the creation of the diminutive Falcon and its pioneering distributed intelligent control, a concept that made it our best-selling vehicle and the most popular system of its size in the world.

The Falcon’s ground-breaking design proved the value and viability of the distributed intelligence concept, which allowed each device on the vehicle to be individually controlled. It also introduced plug-and-play rapid system change to the underwater vehicle industry.

Still proving the concept, a remarkable task recently completed in the Gulf of Mexico illustrated the success of distributed intelligence in managing the Falcon’s resources under extreme conditions. Offshore operator Inquest Services, USA, adapted its metre-sized Falcon to clean 68 intake screens in six days at a drill ship, removing three inches (7.6 centimetres) of hard growth whilst working in eight-foot (2.4-metre) waves and 2.5-knot currents, and holding steady against the 3000psi force of the caviblaster.

  • Diving down into the Gulf of Mexico, the diminutive Falcon proves the power of intelligent control systems

Over the years, and emerging from the Falcon’s fully proven concept of intelligent distributed control, iCON evolved to migrate across our range, now including Falcon. It evolved as further advances in electric technologies and miniaturisation enabled the core construct of transformative robotics to emerge to change the way systems can be individually crafted for task resolution.

The results born of iCON can be witnessed in a mission undertaken by Australia-based Dive Works. The company saved millions of dollars for a client by performing a seemingly impossible inspection, repair and maintenance work scope using an electric Leopard in a procedure that previously could only be achieved by large and expensive hydraulic systems and divers.

With electric systems that are as powerful as equivalent hydraulic systems, but far smaller, they bring not only considerable savings in ownership and operations, but also make deployment from a small, fast service vessel possible – bringing even greater operational savings and expanded opportunities.

  • Complete Leopard package aboard Dive Works' chartered, fast, long-range, low-draft support and emergency response vessel

Other advantages that iCON-endowed electric robotics have over hydraulics include working longer in strong currents and coping with heat.

This was highlighted in the Arabian Gulf when CCC Underwater Engineering, UAE, picked the Leopard to inspect 570 kilometres of pipeline over two continuous months, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, often in scorching 40ºC heat.

CCC liked that iCON effectively thinks for itself leaving the operator free to concentrate on the task at hand. It also gives the operator greater information to make maintenance simpler and quicker, along with remote internet access for upgrades and support. iCON’s building block modularity also makes equipment changes easier and avoids the need to partially dismantle the vehicle.



The transformative nature of iCON is illustrated in the Sabertooth. Its unique design emerged as the only autonomous underwater robotic roaming vehicle that can hover, has 360-degree orientation, and can transform itself to undertake light work tasks.

This breakthrough concept enabled us to enter into autonomous offshore asset integrity management and environmental monitoring, making it possible for the free roaming Sabertooth autonomous vehicle to reside at deep or remote locations for extended periods at seabed docking stations where interchangeable tooling packages are stored, batteries recharged, data and video downloaded and new missions uploaded over the internet.

The intelligent control behaviour-based architecture aboard the Sabertooth provides a decision-making capability that can react to unexpected data by deviating from a programmed mission to gather new data, or perform a task, before resuming its mission plan.

In more than 30 years we have pioneered many breakthroughs that have changed the industry. The creation of task tailored robotics is the most radical and far-reaching yet, as it puts the focus on empowering each customer by making it possible for them to configure their own robotic solution to suit their specific range of tasks, precisely.





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