Oil and gas professionals have long been accustomed to working in hostile geographic environments.
Think dense jungles, desert terrain, ultra deep water, for example.
Then there's the unique Arctic region.
Obviously, it's a daunting locale, with often-frigid temperatures, frequent ice floes and myriad other challenges to oil and gas operations and the stalwart workers who perform these tasks.
The ongoing efforts to strike it big continue unabated, however, given that the potential for major production is huge.
In the past three decades, more than 200 billion barrels of oil have been discovered there, according to AAPG member and past AAPG Distinguished Lecturer Alastair Fraser, EGI chair in petroleum geoscience at Imperial College of London.
"Ultimate resources are estimated at 114 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and 2,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas," Fraser noted to the EXPLORER last year. "If these estimates are correct, these hydrocarbons would amount to more than a fifth of the world's undiscovered reserves."
So, you ask, what will it take to recover a sizeable amount of these hydrocarbons?
For starters, it will require innovation - and lots of it, particularly in the realm of subsea operations.
Newfoundland-based GRI Simulations, which specializes in subsea simulation and visualization, has logged innumerable hours working on its Virtual Arctic Simulation Environment to enable scientists to evaluate the perilous area from the comfort of their offices.
The evolving VASE technology has been under development at GRI for more than 15 years, explained company research scientist Matthew Hamilton. He noted that while parts of it are finished, it is still being developed, and much of it is still experimental.
"It's close to being commercial," he said. "We need more testing, more studies with real data."
When designing subsea infrastructure and executing operations, issues of safety and economic and engineering success are challenged by the risky conditions characteristic of deeper waters and harsh, cold environments.
"A software-based virtual environment presents the option to alleviate these risks, providing the capability to design, train and plan design and operations virtually before proceeding in the physical realm," Hamilton said.
No one said it would be easy, though.
"Virtual environments pose steep technical challenges," Hamilton said, "in that they must be realistic enough so that training in the simulation environment transfers into the corresponding real world scenario, and design simulations are accurate enough to serve as reliable predictive tools."
The Right Stuff
Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are increasingly used where conditions for subsea operations pose danger or obstacles for divers charged with operating and maintaining infrastructure.
Significant skill is needed to operate these vehicles at all times - and certain missions require even more specialized skills than usual, meaning the ROV pilots need considerable time to learn the specifics of what any given assignment requires.
In fact, ROV training simulation has emerged as an indispensable tool to help train pilots in performing basic piloting skills and practicing complex missions.
"In the harsh northwest Atlantic, the threat of iceberg scour has created a requirement that subsea pipelines be buried in deep trenches in order to mitigate against the risk of damage," Hamilton said. "Successful trenching of pipelines requires complex ROV piloting but also strategic choice of trench routes based on seafloor geometry, soil properties and geotechnical considerations".
"We present a virtual software simulation environment centered around ROVs, with particular focus on supporting trenching vehicle operations," he noted. "The system can now simulate trenching and dredging vehicles, such as jetters, ploughs and mechanical cutters."
The key property for a virtual environment used for training is realism, in that it must create the sense of presence for the user. In other words, the sense of "being there" in a virtual environment, according to Hamilton.
When piloting an ROV, the sometimes reduced visibility caused by not-so-clear water can be a considerable issue. This can be made worse if the vehicle makes contact with the seafloor - the ensuing "dust-up" will impair visibility for the pilot who must compensate by relying more on sonar and other sensors.
Hamilton emphasized that the dirt kick-up effect is simulated effectively in the VASE.
"GPU-based dust plumes have been tested and appear to allow much larger, more realistic plumes to be modeled in real time," he said, "allowing simulation of what would occur in deep, arctic trenching scenarios."
As GRI continues to refine its VASE, he noted they receive feedback from ROV companies using the system, telling them what works and what doesn't.