Funded Projects - University of Houston
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The mission of SSI is to improve safety and efficiency of offshore energy development by facilitating engineering, science and policy research and through third party unbiased validation of technology and practices. As such, SSI Research Grants are designed to seed innovative research that can positively impact safe and reliable exploration and energy production in the Gulf of Mexico. The support of industry partners is strongly encouraged.

Principal Investigators: Zheng Chen & Gangbing Song, UH
One of the fundamental building blocks of the subsea oil and gas industry are the thousands of miles of pipelines installed across the seabed, such as in the Gulf of Mexico. The pipelines serve to carry valuable fluids from subterranean reservoirs to the topside, and thus must be able to withstand years of high pressure, high temperature conditions. While subsea pipelines may be engineered to withstand such harsh conditions, unexpected events can prematurely cause failure of pipeline structures, including bolted flanges, welding, etc.

Such events are ideally mitigated by timely maintenance and inspection of subsea pipeline structures. However, such routine actions can be excessively costly and when divers are involved, the issue of safety becomes a major consideration. Furthermore, depending on the skill and experience of human operators, certain critically damaged components may be missed. Failures that occur from damages that were overlooked by inspection routines can have catastrophic consequences, leading to hundreds of fatalities and billions of dollars of damage over the past two decades.

The events have inspired the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to issue a recent public report highlighting the need for better detection of damage in subsea infrastructure, especially for bolted structures. Thus, the goal of this project is to develop transformative robotic and SmartTouch sensing technology, that will lead to a time efficient and cost-effective system for underwater pipeline inspection.

To achieve the research objective, we will investigate the following tasks:

  1. Develop SmartTouch sensing for pipeline structure inspection
  2. Design dexterous robotic manipulator for remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to deliver SmartTouch sensors to complex pipeline structures
  3. Develop force feedback sensing and grasping control for manipulator
  4. After integration of key components, conduct comprehensive testing

The tool integrates state-of-the-art robotic manipulator controls for ROV and the latest structural health monitoring and inspection methods to automate pipeline inspection, including loosened connectors and deformed pipelines inspection. With the developed technology of pipeline structures will be safer, more economical, and more accurate. Completion of the proposed solution will open the doors to applications for inspection of other kinds of subsea structures. With proper implementation, the rate of subsea pipeline failure and related accidents will decrease, and subsea operations will be free to expand at faster rate than before.

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 10/31/2020

Principal Investigators: Zheng Chen & John Allen
Normally-unmanned installations (NUIs) are becoming more prevalent throughout the oil and gas industry. These installations seek to decrease risk and cost to oil and gas companies by removing humans from routine yet dangerous operational environments. However, in practice humans are required to visit and maintain these NUIs much more often than desired. Robotic assets deployed on these platforms could mitigate this risk and cost by managing tasks that require physical interaction, thereby reducing the need for direct human intervention. At the same time, many existing platforms cannot be retrofitted to operate as NUIs. Dexterous robots that can operate in human-engineered environments would allow for the conversion of these existing platforms, greatly expanding the benefit of NUI operations across the industry.

Separate to this industry need, NASA is planning beyond-Earth orbit missions involving human habitats that will be unmanned for the majority of their lives. NASA currently seeks to understand how robots can assist in maintaining these habitats prior to, and following, crew missions. NASA awarded Northeastern University a Valkyrie humanoid robot for the work in their Robotics and Intelligent Vehicles Research Laboratory. SSI will collaborate with the PIs, Professors Taskin Padir and Robert Platt of Northeastern University with the objective to facilitate a testing opportunity for the SmartTouch integration with their Valkyrie robot. The goal of this proposed project is to increase the ability of robotic assets to manage the physical operations and tasks necessary for both oil platform and spacecraft habitat maintenance. In support of this goal, the specific technical objective of the project is to advance the autonomous skills of dexterous robots capable of performing these remote tasks. This will assist remote human operators by reducing their cognitive workload during operations, and promises to increase task efficiency and improve safety at remote sites in the future.

It is recognized that robots will not be completely autonomous in the near future, and therefore will not be eliminating all human support of NUIs. However, baseline autonomous skills that allow remote robots to perceive their environment and manipulate objects within that environment will significantly enhance the ability to perform highly complex tasks without a physical human presence at remote installations. Better manipulation for fine, dexterous tasks, including soft robotics and drones, and advanced perception to decrease the need for real-time human intervention will facilitate a more timely integration of robots into existing platform operations, while improving the survivability of unmanned space-based habitats. SSI is currently exploring collaboration opportunities with local energy companies and other governmental agencies in similar technology areas. If these partnerships come to fruition, the work proposed here will leverage this synergy to demonstrate even further advanced capabilities.

This project will address the following specific research actions:

  • Opening door tool design and pickup
  • Design door opening robot and open the door
  • Transition through the door
  • Comprehensive testing: Fabricating the door fixture and testing
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 10/31/2020

Principal Investigator: Aaron Becker
ROVs are high-value assets sent to areas difficult to access. Consequently, they are used in the oil and gas industry for tasks which can be dangerous for human personnel, such as rig inspection. Collision avoidance is a paramount concern to protect both subsea assets and the robots themselves. This is necessary, because servicing an ROV stranded subsea would require rescue missions that scale in complexity. In addition, AUV swarms require low-cost, robust methods to avoid agent-agent collisions.

The Robotic Swarm Control Lab and collaborators have designed and tested tri-axial antennas for underwater AUVs and ROVs [1]. Pairs of these antennas could be implemented to rapidly measure relative 6-DOF range and orientation between pairs of AUVs and/or AUVs and underwater assets.

This study will test procedures for collision avoidance using triaxial magnetic induction and computer vision. In this study, we propose to:

  • Design TX/RX Control Circuits for Triaxial Antennas
  • Generate 3D Models for Transmission Power Between Antenna Pairs
  • Validate models through underwater tests at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab
  • Design safe avoidance control laws for ROVs equipped with new sensors

The main goal is to lay the theoretical foundations and validate a hardware prototype for a multi-sensor navigation-aid system that will efficiently and economically provide collision avoidance for multiple robots deployed for high-risk subsea inspection jobs. We will focus on vision control as well as magnetic induction for the short-ranged path-planning and communication required to fulfill oil rig inspection job requirements. The magnetic induction system will exploit range and bearing information, as well as transmit high bandwidth relative localization data when robots are nearby. This will enable sharing data gathered by alternate sensing modalities. For this proposal, we will share camera data from multiple cameras located in our ROV.

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 10/31/2020

Principal Investigator: Zheng Chen
The 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) hosted by the Department of Defense spurred numerous robotic innovations from engineering teams around the world. The goal of the DRC was to make society more resilient through the development of robotics that can engage in humanitarian work (e.g. rescue efforts, maintenance in harsh environments, disaster relief, etc.). The NASA R5, a.k.a., Valkyrie humanoid robot was a consequence of the DRC and the Valkyrie brought about advances especially in robotic manipulation and supervisory control technologies.

Through its unique combination of sensor arrays, locomotive capabilities and dexterous manipulators, the Valkyrie possessed multiple functions and is designed to operate in harsh or degraded human-engineered environments. One such demonstrated function was the ability to interact with construction, such as scaffolding. While the ability to assemble human made structures is crucial to the humanitarian objectives of the Valkyrie or any other similar robots, equally important is the ability to accurately inspect and maintain existing infrastructures.

Due to the difficulty of using conventional inspection tools via remotely controlled robotic manipulators, there is no easy way to know for certain that the structural work performed by the robot is viable (e.g. bolt may not be tightened adequately at a key connection). Recently, researchers at the University of Houston have developed a non-invasive SmartTouch inspection tool designed for use by subsea ROVs/AUVs to easily inspect connections with a simple touch.

With further work, the SmartTouch technology can be adapted for use in robots such as the Valkyrie with far reaching advantages in their mission to benefit society. Thus, this proposal briefly outlines the research that can make such an adaptation possible.

Overall, the goal of the proposed work is to integrate SmartTouch into the manipulators of the Valkyrie to enable one-touch inspection capabilities. The research will encompass the following tasks:

  • Sensor Design
  • Force Feedback Control
  • Comprehensive Testing at UH
  • Integration and Testing with a Valkyrie simulator at UH
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 10/31/2020

Principal Investigators: Haleh Ardebili, UH & Rafael Verduzco, Rice
The main goal of this project is to design and fabricate polymer-based flexible and safe lithium ion batteries able to operate under subsea conditions. Potential applications include powering devices in underwater vehicles, emergency outage backup power, and subsea drilling structural energy storage. The device should be reliable, safe and able to instantly provide power for subsea applications.

Several research groups will collaborate in this project, namely, Haleh Ardebili at the University of Houston, Rafael Verduzco at Rice University, and William Walker at NASA. All experimental and computational modeling efforts are dedicated to developing lithium ion batteries that can deliver effective power under subsea environment.

This work will pave the way for novel and improved energy storage solutions such as flexible batteries for subsea applications and expand their electrochemical performances, allowing the batteries to operate at temperatures as low as 0° Celsius. This device will reliably provide a safer environment for the exploration and production of oil in subsea conditions, and to deliver high- power for a range of subsea needs.

The specific goals of this project are (a) design and fabricate batteries that provide steady and long-term power and voltage at low temperature (UH); (b) Boost the performance of the battery through enhancing the battery materials properties through novel material designs and high resolution and rigorous characterization techniques (UH and Rice) (c) develop thermo-electrochemical model and conduct the simulation at low temperature to validate the experimental results (UH and NASA).

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 3/31/2020

Principal Investigator: Gangbing Song
This work will produce a new, stress wave based communication method using piezoelectric transducers to be used for subsea communication. Utilizing specially designed sensor nodes, data will be gathered, encoded, and transmitted through subsea pipelines. The scientific impact of this work centers on the installation of sensor nodes as a way to propagate the entire system of subsea pipelines as a web of pathways for stress wave based communication along the network of sensor nodes.

The Gulf of Mexico (GOM) contains a major infrastructure of pipelines and subsea facilities supporting exploration and production activities. GOM operators will benefit from more robust communications resulting in improved real time monitoring capability and a significant reduction in costs related to subsea data transmission. Industry support will be provided by OneSubsea, APS Technology and Halliburton.

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 8/31/2019

Principal Investigator: Fathi Ghorbel, Rice
Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) are now emerging with new capabilities and technologies that can make them more efficient and more cost effective than Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV). The proposed research is the first phase of an overall program to address some of these technological challenges.  The objective is to develop an AUV prototype that will be highly maneuverable in tight spaces, can hold station vertically, can perform docking, and will be capable of autonomous manipulation.

The program will advance several aspects of AUV technological challenges in autonomy, sensing, and physical capabilities. Specifically, advances will be made in thruster technology and sensing which will enable high maneuverability in tight spaces. The research approach will leverage advances made by the Robotics & Intelligent Systems Lab at Rice University in swimming robotic inspection of above- ground oil storage tanks, and NASA’s robotics, automation, and guidance technologies, and its Neutral Buoyancy Lab infrastructure.

The objective of this initial Phase 1 funding award consists of two levels with a final goal of establishing a future sound and comprehensive program in autonomous AUVs for subsea energy applications with engagement and endorsement of major operators. The specific goals of the project are as follows:

  • Program 1: Organize a workshop to engage industry in overviewing the state of the art of AUV technology and build a collaborative relationship with operators in subsea energy applications to define the new challenges of subsea AUVs. The objective is to identify the end user mission requirements, the status of AUV research and technology development within industry and the target areas for defining the future research objectives for this project.
  • Program 2: Build an updated, more functional and more robust version of the Rice University RiSYS Lab swimming robot prototype shown below to be tested at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab. In Phase 1 of the project, the robot’s hydrodynamic shape (referred to as Problem 1 in original proposal document), thrusters and their configurations (Problem 2 in original proposal document), and design of new bidirectional thrusters (Problem 3 in original proposal document) will not be addressed. This grant funding will be used to build one (1), updated AUV prototype from the existing unit.
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 8/31/2018

Principal Investigator: Robert Stewart, UH
In the Gulf of Mexico, there are some 25,000 miles of pipelines crisscrossing the seafloor and about 3,000 producing wells with their associated platforms (Edelstein, 2015). The Gulf currently produces approximately 20% (1.7 million barrels of oil per day – EIA, 2016) of the US oil total. The overall goal of this project is to develop vibration monitoring systems to improve the safety and cost-effectiveness of subsea petroleum monitoring and production. Anything that compromises this activity can have serious economic or environmental consequences. Wells and pipelines can be subject to untoward events or processes (e.g., corrosion, plugging, leakage, storms, seafloor instabilities).

Thus, monitoring oil and gas flow in pipelines (and risers and sub-bottom casings) is critical to assess conduit integrity and as well as optimize overall production performance. This proposal focuses on reservoir characterization, underwater communication and infrastructure integrity assurance. This work will develop a proof-of-concept marine, fiber-optic vibration sensing system – an instrumented flow loop for the lab and field. Along with associated analysis and interpretation methods, this system will provide learnings for improved subsea reservoir monitoring and production. Industry support will come in the form of collaborations with Apache Corp., Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Optasense and Halliburton.

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 8/31/2018

Principal Investigators: James Tour, Rice & Haleh Ardebili, UH
During the Macondo well disaster there were two instances of miswiring and two backup battery failures affecting the electronic and hydraulic controls for the blowout preventer (BOP)’s blind shear ram (BSR) – an emergency hydraulic device with two sharp cutting blades. Due to the backup battery failures, the BOP’s blind shear ram was not functioning as intended and was unable to control the well by cleanly cutting the drill pipe and containing the well.

The goal of this project is to directly address one of the critical failures that occurred during this major accident by developing a combination of two new technologies using batteries and high-power supercapacitors. The batteries provide the trickle charge to the high-power supercapacitors which provide the necessary power to activate the blind shear ram. This work will pave the way for improved energy storage and power supply solutions that enable not only next generation blowout preventers to reliably operate and provide a safer environment for the exploration and production of oil in subsea environments, but to provide electrical high-power for a range of subsea equipment needs.

The specific goals are to:

  • Design and fabricate high power, high voltage nanoporous nickel fluoride (NP-NF) thin-film supercapacitors
  • Design and fabricate high capacity, thin-film Li ion batteries to trickle charge the supercapacitors
  • Stack and integrate NP-NF thin-film supercapacitors with thin-film Li ion batteries
  • Develop a prototype supercapacitor-battery unit for electrical testing under subsea environmental conditions at 16,000 psi
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 3/31/2018

Principal Investigators: Matthew Franchek, UH & Matthew Brake, Rice
A blowout preventer (BOP) is a large, specialized mechanical device, used to seal, control and monitor oil and gas wells to prevent blowout, the uncontrolled release of crude oil and/or natural gas from well.  A typical subsea deep water blowout preventer system includes components such as electrical and hydraulic lines, control pods, hydraulic accumulators, test valve, kill and choke lines and valves, riser joint, hydraulic connectors, and a support frame  This work will produce a BOP Monitoring System capable of self-integration whereby it learns the specific BOP thereby enabling accurate estimations of BOP health.

The scientific impact of this work centers on the creation of an Information Synthesis (IS) monitoring knowledge base applicable to a broad range of subsea systems. The proposed IS technology complements the data fusion knowledge by synthesizing information via dynamic adaptive models. Using the adapted model coefficients, BOP health and remaining useful life estimations will be recovered in a rigorous mathematical formulation.

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 3/31/2018

Principal Investigators: Robert Stewart
This project is the first phase in a project to address the areas of early kick detection, wellbore monitoring, blow-out preventer (BOP) validation and monitoring, and remotely operated vehicle and subsea processing via subsea monitoring. The project will adapt existing seismic technology for surveying geological formations to the specific purpose of monitoring the health of subsea drilling or production systems. The project will also develop a proof-of-concept monitoring system for the early detection and assessment of drilling or production problems.

The proposed monitoring system consists of three components:

  1. Fiber-optic motion sensors (distributed acoustic systems - DAS) on the riser to monitor hydrocarbon flow and pressure transients. The riser is a flow line from the sea floor to the surface platform and forms part of an existing production facility. There is no additional funding to the project for this component.
  2. Ocean-bottom seismometers (OBS) arrayed around the well-head to detect gas and over-pressure zones, microseismic events, and sediment deformation.
  3. Active sonar scanners near the BOP to create 3D images of the wellhead vicinity and possible hydrocarbon leaks.

These instruments would continuously monitor and provide information to assess drilling progress, facility integrity, production state, and anomalies. The project will develop a proof-of-concept monitoring system for the early detection and assessment of drilling or production problems. It will thus inform about the design and capability of a full field system which will contribute substantially toward the safety and efficacy of deep-water operations.

The specific goals of the first phase of the project are as follows:

  1. Host an industry workshop
  2. Investigate and confirm the application of seismic instrumentation for the monitoring of the integrity of drilling and production systems through the use of:
    • Distributed Acoustic Systems (DAS)
    • Sonar
    • Ocean-bottom seismometers (OBS)
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 12/31/2016