High definition in the ocean depths

Tobias Romaniuk
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Clarenville-based company working on industry-first underwater SLR

When it comes to remote underwater imagery, the future is looking clearer.

It’s now possible to view near-live high-definition video footage from a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) on the ocean floor while sitting in an office on dry land.

Due to the slight delay of transmitting video signals, the footage lags behind what is actually happening, but the footage is some of the clearest available, and it comes from cameras by SubC Control, a company based in Clarenville.

Now, SubC Control is working to improve ocean imagery again. With its high-definition cameras being used at sites around the world, including in the search for Amelia Earhart’s plane crash site, the company is working to build what is likely the first commercially available underwater SLR for use on an ROV.

Before starting the project, it looked for an existing underwater SLR for use on ROVs, and couldn’t find one, said Ron Collier, SubC Center’s media spokesman and business development manager.

Once completed, the camera will give a clearer image of what’s below the ocean surface.

“It will produce the highest-resolution digital stills for any underwater camera on the market,” said Collier.

But first, the company has to finish the prototype, which is expected by the end of October.

The R&D project received funding from the Research and Development Council, and SubC Control’s offshore oil industry partners have said the new camera is something they would be interested in.

“Doing an SLR camera has its challenges compared to the other cameras that we’ve done because it has to be manually focused, so the control on that is a lot different. It’s more mechanical. So there are some challenges and hence the RDC funding to help us do that pure R&D,” said Collier.

 

At the start, the company had no idea if the project would work, and it hit some snags along the way, but now the problems have been solved and things are looking good, said Collier.

Most underwater cameras used in ROVs take an existing industrial camera, or a block camera, and put it in an underwater housing, said Collier. The result is cameras that lag behind currently available imaging technology, according to Collier.

SubC Control takes a different approach, and searches out cameras they can modify to suit their needs. It’s a process that takes more effort than just putting a camera in an underwater housing.

“We do go after existing cameras to try and find the most suitable one for this particular application, and sometimes it takes a lot of work to find it,” said Collier.

The company builds the interface to control the camera and its functions at extreme depths, he said, but doesn’t build the sensors or lenses for the cameras, instead using existing equipment and improving it for their needs.

Those controls include a topside control system with the ability to overlay data on the image. With the cameras capable of working at depths exceeding 3,000 metres below the surface, transmitting data becomes an issue. The high-definition images have a larger file size than standard-definition images, and some tethered ROVs don’t have the type of cable needed to handle large data transmission.

To get around that problem, SubC Control developed a standalone system. The camera stores high definition imagery onboard the ROV and sends a standard definition image topside. That onboard storage means the camera systems — camera, lights, batteries and image storage — can be used on non-tethered, or autonomous, ROVs. It’s a system the company uses with its existing products.

That makes the cameras especially appealing for companies looking to monitor their offshore resources. One of these self-contained cameras can be delivered to an underwater site, left for a month, and then retrieved, said Collier.

He refers to it as sub-sea asset monitoring, and the best possible image quality is important when it comes to identifying potential problems.

 

Using the example of an underwater pipeline, Collier explains high-definition image quality means a crack or other potential problem can be seen easier and possibly sooner than when using a standard-definition camera. That early detection could potentially save time and money, he said, both of which are important considerations in offshore work.

Once the prototype is complete, the camera will be tested to ensure it works when 3,000 metres below the surface. Once the testing is complete it will go into production, and contacts in the oil industry have already expressed an interest in a camera that offers better images than what is currently available, said Collier.

The R&D of SubC Control is what separates it from the competition, said Collier, and it’s the push for something better that has made the company a viable alternative to the industry’s major players.

A better product is only part of the equation, though. The customer, who is pleased with their current standard-definition image quality, needs to be convinced that high definition is a better product.

It’s like the person shopping for a new television, said Collier.

“I compare it with if you had a 20-inch CRT TV and you’ve never seen one of these high-definition plasma or LCD screens. You’re probably quite happy, but the moment you saw the 60-inch LCD screen you’d go. ‘Wow, there’s a big difference.’”

 

tobias.romaniuk@gmail.com

@tobiasromaniuk

Organizations: Research and Development Council, SubC Center

Geographic location: Clarenville.Now

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