COLUMN | What becomes of the uncharted? [The Bow Wave]

The oil price has crept up slightly and OSVs are starting to be placed in charters that are measured in years rather than months. But for the most part these contracts are going to newbuilds, which leaves quite a number of older craft at anchor. What options does an owner have to bring these boats in from the pasture put them to work?

COLUMN | Home on the range [The Bow Wave]

I was having a discussion the other day and the topic of farmed fish came up. It seemed that people liked the lower prices that farming has brought to the consumers of smoked salmon but were a little concerned that perhaps the quality wasn’t as high as wild caught salmon and that the perceived environmental impacts of the pens in close proximity to shore were still quite high.

COLUMN: The burning box [Grey Power]

What will it take to stop shippers who don’t care, killing seafarers and burning ships on a regular basis? The terrifying pictures of the giant Maersk Honan with its whole forepart a mass of roaring flames and the body count of five dead, several injured and a whole crew traumatised, ought, you might think, ram home the reasons for the utmost care in shipping dangerous cargo.

COLUMN: Ready to Rock Steady [The Bow Wave]

The other day I was watching some videos on YouTube and an interesting clip appeared in my “recommended viewing” queue.

I’m not entirely sure what videos I’d watched previously that made the boffins at Google think that this video would interest me but I’m glad their algorithms exist as this was a video from around 2014 and was an animation of a stabilised helipad for installation on large offshore support vessels.

The video had been uploaded by motion-compensation specialist Barge Master (available here and appears to be a collaboration between helideck manufacturer Bayards of the Netherlands and Barge Master. Having seen the impressive installations of stabilized walk-to-work (W2W) systems developed by Ampelmann in the pages of this magazine over recent years I was immediately interested in the stabilised helipad concept and started to wonder why we have not seen one actually being built.

A quick hunt online found a number of patents that have been lodged that detail stabilised helipads however none specify offshore use. One was for mounting on the back of a truck in terrain where no flat landing areas were available and another was for on top of skyscrapers that sway in the wind.

Motion compensated helipad

Certifying such a helipad for offshore use would probably be the greatest challenge as not only will the platform have to meet stringent ship design standards, but also the increasingly challenging standards of the generally conservative aviation safety agencies.

Given the horrific time that the North Sea helicopter fleet has had in recent years with multiple helicopter crashes it seems unlikely that any new development will be allowed without an onerous and exhaustive testing phase that very few companies could afford to complete given the limited market size.

It would seem that the idea hasn’t been picked up because of timing. The oil price crash slashed the use of helicopters offshore with the W2W-equipped vessels quickly taking up the slack. Should oil prices rebound I think it will be hard for even the most free-spending of exploration departments to get permission to return to the red-tape laden use of helicopters. There are still active groups of oil workers in the UK and Norway who refuse to travel on EC225 model helicopters after the spate of crashes, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Whilst the W2W system undoubtedly takes longer per voyage, the fact is you can transport 100+ crew at a time, in worse weather conditions than a helicopter. Direct costs of operating a number of helicopters versus the single vessel end up being comparable however the W2W vessel doesn’t require that all who travel upon her complete an expensive, and intensive, helicopter evacuation and survival training course.


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COLUMN: Full Power [The Bow Wave]

A few years ago NASA decided to take another look at one of their projects from the “Golden Age” of space, a compact nuclear reactor for use on extended space missions where batteries and solar panels wouldn’t be viable.

Going by the updated acronym of KRUSTY, for Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology, the researchers have built a 1kW test unit loaded with a small amount of Uranium-235. The system is designed to be entirely passive until turned on, and doesn’t contain enough radioactive material to go critical and go into a meltdown.

The Stirling engine, which is the component that actually generates the electricity, operates on a temperature differential ie. the heat generated by the nuclear reactor is greater than that of the surrounding environment. The greater the temperature difference, the greater the power produced. The engine was invented back in the early 1800s and has proven the best method of converting heat energy to electrical energy in small, space and weight-constrained applications like spacecraft.

Kilopower experiment

The experiment is ongoing through the northern Spring using a reactor core that has been described as the size of a paper towel roll. Assuming the project gets the go-ahead to progress to a 10kW unit the size will grow to about two metres in height with a large sunshade-style heat radiator. The full size unit is expected to produce the full 10kW of electricity for more than 10 years and would be deployed singly for space probes or in groups of four or more to power camps on the Moon or Mars.

So, why is this project of interest to the maritime community? For starters underwater research labs could certainly make use of the power, as could unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) and remote monitoring stations.

This would not be the first time that civilian oceanographic researchers have had access to nuclear power. The NR-1 submarine launched in 1969 and operated numerous oceanographic and geological research voyages. The 45-metre-long vessel is the smallest nuclear submarine yet built and remained in US government service until 2008.

Whilst 10kW might now seem like an enormous amount of electrical power, a UUV that spends its time drifting with the subsurface currents would find it more than sufficient for minor course corrections and the occasional journey to the surface and back for data-dumps via satellite. In a subsea oceanographic lab the heat generated might prove to be more valuable than the electricity, allowing for research labs in cooler waters that might not have been viable otherwise.

UUVs could also operate on a “trickle charge” method where a bank of batteries, say a few hundred kilowatt hours, is charged by the generator and once full uses the battery power to transit from point A to point B whereupon it settles onto the seafloor or deploys an anchor and monitors the local area using a small fraction of the generator output as the rest of the electricity goes to recharging the batteries. A fleet of these UUVs could easily form the backbone of a wide area submarine monitoring network.

Because of the small size of the unit decommissioning can be done at a central, specialised facility which would reduce costs. The uranium could be reprocessed with a fair amount of it being reused in new reactor cores and the other radioactive products produced being disposed of responsibly

Production wise, Uranium-235 isn’t particularly rare or overly expensive and if a standard reactor were designed these things could be mass-produced to bring the cost down drastically. It’s not unreasonable to think these KRUSTY generators could become a plug-and-play power source much like a AA battery.

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COLUMN: The next generation [Grey Power]

It is a very old joke that the shipping industry’s long-term personnel policy is finding a second engineer with a tanker endorsement and experience in medium-speed engines, with a US visa for a ship arriving in Singapore next Tuesday.

COLUMN: Tough times for salvors [Grey Power]

They are an emergency service upon which the shipping industry depends. They represent a repository of specialised expertise that no amount of money could magic out of thin air, if they were no longer available. They have a king’s ransom locked up in their equipment, strategically located around the world. They are the “last resort”, when a ship is disabled, threatens to leak its cargo all over some environmentally sensitive region, or is wrecked.

COLUMN: What’s my incentive? [The Bow Wave]

Readers will undoubtedly be aware that a US company going by the name of Ocean Infinity has taken to the Indian Ocean in search of the wreckage of flight MH370, still missing after nearly four years.

Ocean Infinity (OI) has tapped the financial market to fund the voyage and has signed an agreement with the Malaysian Government whereby OI will receive cash bonuses if it locates the wreckage within 90 days. The bonus structure is set up so that if OI has to search more area it gets a larger payout.

If it finds the Boeing 777 within the first 5,000km2, then the payment will be US$20 million. If it’s found within 10,000km2, then the bonus is $30 million, and increases to $50 million if the searched area is increased to 25,000km2. If the searched area is even greater then the bonus is $70 million, but this is the most the Malaysian Government will be on the hook for. And of course, if OI finds nothing then the Malaysians pay nothing.

The way the deal is structured, at least from what has been made public, certainly gives OI an incentive to search as much terrain as possible. With eight autonomous seafloor mapping minisubs, the task is expected to take several weeks with the company confident that by as early as February it will be able to announce results.

Mapping the seabed at greater resolution

So, why does this mapping project interest me? Several years ago I was fortunate to attend a presentation by a representative of GEBCO, the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans. GEBCO is an organisation that is attempting to map the worlds’ oceans to a degree not yet achieved.

Presently, the charts of the open ocean are of low resolution, so low in fact that small mountain ranges could exist that we are not aware of. Various governments and NGOs have had a go over the years of getting better data, and of course some data is better than no data, but the map is still rather porous.

Which brings me back to the search for MH370. A multi-government effort that has expended hundreds of millions of dollars to search an area that many experts said was unlikely to be the ultimate destination of the aircraft. The search parameters were dictated by political sensibilities that assumed the pilot was dead, rather than still in control and on a suicide mission which would have caused embarrassment for the Malaysian Government.

The fact that the search committee refused to consider suicide a possibility, and implication of the possible flight path that it might have had, meant that even as new evidence of wreckage drifting onto African shores appeared, the search area was effectively unchanged.

However, a private company that has a goal is going to look at all the evidence and isn’t going to be concerned with issues of national embarrassment if a very profitable prize is waiting. And so in a similar fashion I propose a prize for anyone who can increase the quality of the bathymetric data of the worlds’ oceans.

GEBCO members have already embraced the idea of prizes, but as a contender rather than as the judge with an entry in the Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize. The GEBCO-NF alumni team is led by alumni of the Nippon Foundation/GEBCO Ocean Bathymetry training program at the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping of the University of New Hampshire, and is hoping to win a US$7 million prize by developing deep-sea technologies for autonomous, fast and high-resolution ocean exploration.

Bathymetry of the Atlantic. We've improved but still a way to go. Photo: NOAA

The prize that I propose could easily be administered by the International Maritime Organisation or the International Seabed Authority or possibly jointly as both organisations would benefit from the data. GEBCO already operates under the joint auspices of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) (of UNESCO) and the International Hydrographic Organisation (IHO) so it is already well placed to assist with management of the project.

Funding could be obtained from the royalties that the ISA is set to receive from resource extraction projects in international waters and could be “kick started” with some cash from wealthier nations with ocean-going heritage such as the UK, the Netherlands and even China.

My idea for prizes would be based upon increasing the resolution of data over a particular area. The ocean would be divided up into grids or polygons and cash would be awarded once correctly validated bathymetric data for that particular area has been accepted by the judging organisation. The prizes would increase in value as the data density increases.

Some companies may choose to send out fleets of unmanned wave-gliders equipped with single-beam echo-sounders that can sit at sea for months or years whilst others may come up with a multi-beam equipped wavepiercer that can cover large areas in very short time. Others still may choose to develop a satellite based system that takes advantages of the constantly innovating tech sector.

The end result is that the data gets collected, for less than any government would be capable of doing so, and the money is only paid if the mission is successful

I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the idea.

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