An Australian-developed technology that has been integral to mining, telecommunications and scientific surveying for more than 20 years is going global after its recent acquisition.
Developed by University of Sydney researchers in the 1990s, the portable remotely operated drill (PROD) was initially designed to search for the origins of life in ocean depths as low as 2000 m. But it became a major player in the oil and gas industry after being commercialised by Benthic Geotech in 1997.
“Traditionally [in offshore drilling], core sampling needed very long lengths of drill string,” Benthic Geotech electrical engineer Sean MacRae told create.
“For example, if you had a drill ship in 100 m of water, you needed 100 m of drill string to get through the water column before you even hit the sea floor. When that extrapolates out to 2000 and 3000 m, that drilling operation becomes a major technical challenge, especially when the quality of the sample is the primary objective.”
The PROD, on the other hand, is a remotely operated seabed drilling and geotechnical testing system, which is deployed off the side of a ship and landed on the sea floor. This allows for greater safety in offshore benthic sampling, which previously involved workers manually assembling and lowering drill strings into the water. It also allows greater versatility in sampling locations.
“One of the benefits of the PROD is we have the ability to fit special feet at a wide radius, away from the site we’re trying to sample,” MacRae explained.
“So, rather than landing a 15-tonne weight right on the soil we’re trying to test, we can delicately land it nearby, and take a perfectly undisturbed sample at the right location.
“The PROD is completely portable too … We travel with a control room, workshop, storage facility, geotechnical lab and our own custom launch and recovery system. When we’re finished we pack up, put everything back in its containers and ship it somewhere else in the world.”
MacRae added there are currently three PRODs working around the world: two in Africa and one in Brazil.
“At any one time they’re on three corners of the globe,” he said.
While the PROD is primarily used in the oil and gas sectors, the technology has applications further afield, including in renewables.
“In offshore wind farms for example, they’re building massive arrays of wind turbines in shallow water,” MacRae said.
“Currently they need to jack up drill rigs … [but] we’re now looking at ways to deploy our deep-water machines in super shallow water and provide that same high-quality sample in an efficient, quick manner … We’ve also been looking at the profiling of sedimentary systems in fjords out of Seattle and Vancouver. The PROD can be used to deploy sensors for any form of scientific study, really.”
While the recent acquisition means Benthic Geotech now forms part of British offshore engineering giant Acteon Group, the Australian-developed company hasn’t forgotten its roots. It is currently developing a third-generation PROD, with many of the key components coming from Australia.
“We’ve been based in Houston since 2012, but a lot of our suppliers are here in Sydney,” MacRae said.
“Everything from small machining jobs right through to the main structure of this machine, we build here in Sydney and we’ll continue to do so.
“After many years working in Western Sydney, we’ve built up a tremendous amount of good suppliers; everything from someone who supplies nuts and bolts to sophisticated hydraulic designers … We’ll continue to use our tried and true services.”