From surveyors to scientists, ROV pilots have traditionally learned their skills in the field, but such improvisation is failing to keep up with technological developments and new deployment scenarios. A more coherent skills framework is needed.
As remotely operated vessels (ROVs) become more capable and more autonomous, they are finding their way into an expanding range of scientific and industrial applications. To ensure the individuals who manage and operate these sophisticated and increasingly complex pieces of apparatus get the recognition and support they deserve, IMarEST has set out a road-map with seven waypoints, ultimately leading to the development of universally recognised professional credentials for ROV “pilots” and accreditation of courses, industry frameworks or corporate learning schemes.
Often referred to collectively as Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), these vehicles are deployed either on or below the water to survey, monitor or explore new or generally inaccessible corners of the marine environment. They take measurements and collect data, which give marine scientists otherwise unobtainable glimpses into deep-sea ecosystems and new insights into the physical processes that govern ocean behaviour. They are also increasingly deployed in commercial applications to inspect artificial structures including oil platforms, offshore windfarms, subsea cables, the hulls of large cargo ships; and in naval operations such as mine clearing.
Regardless of application, the main attraction of these vehicles is that they obviate the need, inconvenience and expense of sending human divers to perform such tasks. And most important, they eliminate the dangers associated with these activities. In certain respects their robotic replacements can offer better-than-human endurance: they can be built to dive deeper, travel farther or for longer periods.
The term ROV however is increasingly regarded as a misnomer. Improvements in power sources mean that in many cases tethering cables to a nearby mothership have disappeared. Meanwhile rapid advances in control systems mean these platforms are no longer necessarily under the control of a human operator – at least not all time. They can function with varying degrees of autonomy. Some follow pre-programmed routes, others are imbued with artificial intelligence allowing them react to changes or unexpected hazards in their immediate vicinity, while the most sophisticated can adjust their mission parameters depending on what they see or find.
To date, ROVs have been operated by a mix of hydrographers, marine scientists, technologists and marine surveyors who have mostly learned their skills in the field. However, it is increasingly apparent that such improvisation will be inadequate to keep up with rapid technological developments in this field, together with an ever expanding range of deployment scenarios.
The IMarEST therefore anticipates an emerging requirement for new areas of specialist expertise to handle these next-generation technological platforms: systems engineers, roboticists, mission planners, maintainers and repairers, among others and supports the recognition of the skills and competencies gained by experts in the field. To support the increased use of ROVs and to foster and recognise the skills needed to utilise them to their fullest potential, the IMarEST will engage in efforts:
- To promote the utilisation of ROVs as a tool for ocean science and in a wider role in supporting the Blue Economy
- To analyse and assess the implications of the increasing size and capability of ROVs and, where appropriate, make recommendations to steer their development and widening application.
- To support the development and uptake of relevant codes of conduct in order to encourage best practice and ensure the ethical use of ROVs.
- To leverage our standing at intergovernmental organisations to ensure that autonomous and remotely operated vehicles are not omitted from policymaking discussions on the Law of the Sea and ocean governance in general, ensuring harmonisation of regulations and support for practical implementation.
- To bring about sensible and practical regulation for safe and environmentally least-damaging disposal of autonomous vehicles at sea. This is especially relevant for data collection floats built with multi-year lifespan in mind.
- To support and encourage the technological development and practical application of ROVs by creating, curating and sharing knowledge and best practice
- To work in partnership with like-minded organisations to develop universally recognised professional credentials for ROV “pilots” and to accredit courses, industry frameworks or corporate learning schemes