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Underwater technology: Standard Solutions

Getting to the bottom without sinking safety is a challenge. Greater standardisation could hold part of the answer.

More and more petroleum production equipment is being located on the seabed. Norway currently has about 75 installations visible on the surface, and roughly 300 positioned subsea. 

Good grounds exist for seeking underwater solutions, including the cost of installing concrete or steel support structures exposed to strong natural forces and in need of maintenance. In practice, surface facilities attached to the seabed cannot be used in water depths beyond 500 metres. 

Reliable methods and equipment to monitor the condition of subsea facilities are essential for such solutions to function acceptably in terms of safety and economics. 

Seabed hardware also needs maintaining. Components and equipment packages must be replaceable or repairable. That calls for remote control or the use of mini-submarines. 

The Norwegian players are praised by PSA principal engineer Trond Sundby for their willingness and ability to be open about development and experience. 

“A high degree of standardisation has a positive safety effect,” he believes. 

“In critical circumstances, where a fault needs to be swiftly rectified, this would simplify access to spare parts and help ensure that they are installed quickly and safely.” 

Mr Sundby sees a need for even more integrated thinking in standardisation efforts, cutting across disciplines and areas of responsibility. 

“We must elevate analyses and assessments from the component level to a higher plane, so that function and robustness are assessed in a more integrated manner,” he maintains. 

“Each component may be high quality and satisfy the requirements. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the complex system of which this unit forms part will cope with the stresses involved and thereby perform its intended function.” 

Subsea facilities on the NCS have so far comprised wellheads, templates and manifolds. But development is continuing, with the first seabed separation and injection equipment now in place. 

Mr Sundby notes that subsea installations are becoming ever more complex, which calls for extensive control systems and instrumentation.

Such solutions are vulnerable and present new safety-related challenges, not least with regard to data transfer,” he says, and emphasizes that the risk of acute discharges must be acceptable. 

A more electronic future opens the way to new types of faults and problems, he believes, and will not least impose higher standards for personnel who install, operate and maintain such systems. 

“It’s positive that many good educational initiatives have been taken in the industry,” Mr Sundby says. 

“That shows attention is also being given to human factors in the high-tech picture.” 

In addition to developing regulations and exercising supervision, the PSA’s contribution to this exciting trend consists partly of active involvement in standardisation work. Its role in this context is to make its knowledge and experience available and to clarify the regulatory requirements for equipment and methods.

This article was published in the publication "Safety - status and signals 2010-2011".