Issues bubble up in undersea sector
Iain MacIntyre investigate the issues hanging over the progression of the commercial diving industry serving ports
Diver availability, cost undercutting and uncertainty over the role of quasi-regulators are critical issues facing the underwater services industry catering to global ports and terminals.
Engaged over the past 20-plus years as both a professional diver, contractor and trainer of commercial divers, Commercial Diver Training Limited's director George Gradon tells Port Strategy of the pay and recruitment concerns relating to divers working in port waters.
“The biggest challenge to the industry is that the majority of divers start off in docks and harbours on the inshore route, but their long-term aspiration is to work offshore,” he says. “It pays more money and it’s also playing with ‘bigger toys’ on bigger projects.”
With the inshore underwater services sector typically populated by “lots of small companies” and therefore creating “lots of competition for the work”, he also raises concerns that rates are being significantly undercut.
“That drives down the price. Most clients tender for their work competitively and contractors do a very good job of putting each other out of business by bidding with prices that are too low. It limits the contractor's future capital reinvestment in new equipment, such as video-recording, editing suites, plant and welfare facilities, all of which would ultimately result in a better end-product for the client.
“Carpenters and other tradesmen get around £250 per day onshore, while inshore divers get maybe £150-£170. This makes it difficult to attract new high calibre personnel into diving. Personally, I think that when you look at the management, the health and safety, the equipment and so on for inshore diving, companies and divers and companies should be paid more.”
Mr Gradon does credit the Diving at Work Regulations (DWR 97) introduced in the UK in 1997 for having clarified that legislation covers any paid work involving diving in the country’s waters. DWR 97 and the subsequent revisions to the inshore/inland Approved Codes of Practices (ACOPs) in 2014 for commercial diving projects are “generally considered to be best-practice globally”, he says.
Nonetheless, Mr Gradon is troubled by uncertainty over the role of quasi-regulators and highlights the UK’s Marine Management Organisation (MMO) in this regard. Established in 2010 to license, regulate and plan marine activities in the seas around England so that they are carried out in a sustainable way, he says the MMO has simply introduced a “new and complicated level of bureaucracy with additional costs for contractor and client”.
“If you want to build or maintain any subsea assets, if you want to install any new infrastructure, undertake any construction or dredging — effectively anything that involves using tools under the water — then you need a licence and approvals which take a long time to get and cost money. We’re not talking about wishing to extend a port where you are legally required to get planning permission and undertake public consultation and an environmental impact study.
“The MMO’s involvement doesn’t appear to bring any enhanced control, safety or environmental protection that wasn’t already there. They simply appear to have increased red tape.”
Imparting advice for ports and harbour executives seeking to engage potential underwater services providers, Mr Gradon urges that diving contractors be given a “seat at the table” at the earliest opportunity.
“My approach to contracting is largely based on competence, transparency and trust. Be open and honest and involve the client in the job — after all, they have a legal responsibility in the job as well as an interest in seeing it completed efficiently and safety. The client, local port authorities and contractor should work together, pooling information to promote a mutually beneficial outcome.
“If somebody gets hurt, as one of the directors, I might be in court. But the client will be stood right next to me as they have a shared liability under the Diving at Work legislation. In the past, clients have said ‘we don’t know anything about diving, that’s why we have you’; that doesn’t work anymore. If you do not understand commercial diving, you should have employed a diving consultant to act as your agent to oversee the actions of the contractor and to ensure your expectations are met.”
Picking up on the engagement advice from a US perspective, Coda Octopus Products chief executive and president of technology Blair Cunningham urges that priority also be placed on security considerations.
“It is important to find contractors who are committed to providing effective solutions designed to address the increased and new types of security threats which ports and port infrastructures are exposed to, and also who are prepared to work with customers to adapt core technology for their purposes, backed by solid customer support and training,” he says.
Mr Cunningham, whose firm developed real-time 3D Echoscope sonar, sees such technology as an established and conventional method of providing critical information for port and harbour security.
“Advances in technology now mean that up-to-date sonar technology, which has real-time 3D volumetric sonar capability, can play an even-more significant role in port and harbour security — as this removes the requirement to process data before information can be obtained and it allows ports to take real-time critical decisions about their assets as the survey is taking place.
“By way of example, the increased accessibility of drone technology has given rise to a new type of threats in ports — the arrival of unknown sea drones heading into our ports and harbours. It is important therefore to have technology that can track such sea drones in real time and remove the threats before they arrive at our ports.”
Facing operational challenges
He sees the primary focus for undersea services providers as being to help overcome the operational challenges faced on a daily basis: operating in zero-visibility waters where there is need for continuous monitoring, reduced acoustic shadowing and rapid deployment.
“Zero-visibility water conditions in both offshore and near-shore operations prevent our customers from using common tools like subsea cameras or single-beam sonars. Laying assets precisely on the seabed or monitoring a diver’s safety below the surface requires continuous real-time monitoring — a task not previously possible if visibility were poor.
“Our customers who are familiar with industry-common systems like multi-beam echosounders, also have difficulties when visualising a complex asset. The narrow swath of the multi-beam’s pulse makes the image more susceptible to acoustic shadowing — possibly hiding important structural faults or hazardous objects from the sonar operator’s view.
“[Additionally], our customers working in the defence and maritime security space require real-time 3D visualisation solutions that operate in all-water visibility conditions and that can be deployed rapidly in order to investigate an urgent threat or locate a piece of critical evidence.”
TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATIONS ADVANCING UNDERSEA PORT OPS
An operator in the field over the past 25 years, the Coda Octopus Echoscope sonars are enabling non-trained port personnel to gain a first-person’s perspective of underwater environments, explains Coda Octopus Products chief executive and president of technology Blair Cunningham.
“While standard multi-beam sonars take a narrow swath of data with every pulse of the sonar, the Echoscope creates a volumetric pulse that sends 16,000 points of data out 20 times per second,” he says.
“This large amount of data redundancy both reduces acoustic shadowing, allowing the operator to see more around targets, as well as visualising moving objects instantly — without any post-processing and even in zero-visibility conditions.
“For port inspections specifically, the Echoscope can support divers in the water during live operations. Where subsea cameras and multi-beam sonars struggle to visualise underwater targets in highly-turbid port areas, the Echoscope can see through this noise to continue the operation and provide real-time 3D information which is critical for port-management and safety.”
Utilised alongside Coda Octopus’ Construction Monitoring Software, the Echoscope has proven a “critical piece of equipment” in the construction of ports and breakwaters around the world, claims Mr Cunningham.
“This allows the user not only to visualise the moving blocks, but also to track and place blocks more accurately in the breakwater. It gives crane operators a target positioning, allowing even less-experienced crane operators to place blocks more accurately.”
Furthermore, Mr Cunningham says the Coda Octopus Underwater Inspection System (UIS), which embeds the Echoscope, is positively changing the way many ports are now managing their underwater environments.
Mr Cunningham claims this “revolutionary technology” is enabling ports to conduct prompt and accurate inspections for security and recovery purposes.
“The rapid-deployment UIS system allows port operators to take advantage of this technology quickly, responding to urgent requirements for critical asset inspections and surveys. This system is a real enabler of real-time critical decision making.”
He adds that security operations can be further enhanced at ports with the deployment of his firm’s proprietary software package, Coda Octopus Underwater Survey Explorer (USE), which includes the Baseline Comparison module. “Port security services can identify any new and potentially-hazardous features that are different from previously-recorded inspections – this is known as change detection in port infrastructure.”
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