Funded Projects - University of Houston
Skip to main content


The mission of SSI is to improve safety and efficiency of offshore energy development by facilitating engineering, science and policy research and through third party unbiased validation of technology and practices. As such, SSI Research Grants are designed to seed innovative research that can positively impact safe and reliable exploration and energy production in the Gulf of Mexico. The support of industry partners is strongly encouraged.



Principal Investigators: Harish Krishnamoorthy UH  | Kaushik Rajashekara UH

Nearly 1,500 oil and gas (O&G) rigs are located offshore across the globe, the largest share of which are in the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico. The recent trend in O&G industry is to install the subsea processing loads on the seabed for reducing the required space on the platform or even removing the platform altogether. The subsea processes (or subsea factory) include gas compression, boosting, water injection, and separation. Typical power consumption of the Subsea loads is in the range of 5-300 MW, traditionally supplied by local gas turbines or diesel generators. Such power generation strategies have led to significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Also, the electric distribution system of O&G platforms is characterized as a weak electric grid, resulting in poor power quality, lower power factor, voltage and current harmonics, voltage notches, and common mode voltages. All these result in increased losses and also affect the long-term reliability.

This project proposes a system of Multi-port Energy Routers using Intelligent Transformers (MERIT) to interface renewable resources and subsea O&G factories with the HVDC (or MVDC) Grid. In this project, we will investigate combining the energy from wind, wave, floating PV panels and fuel cell - based generators, all located near the subsea factories, to power the loads. Intelligent power converters, including solid state transformers (SSTs), are critical to enhance the power density, reliability and efficiency of the proposed MERIT system. SSTs enable seamless interconnectivity and interoperability between the various energy sources. SSTs support features such as instantaneous voltage compensation, power outage compensation, fault isolation, bi-directional power flow, etc. This research will also investigate how to optimally design and integrate SSTs into the MERIT system to have the best performance both during transient and steady state conditions. It is expected that widespread implementation of the proposed synergies can lead to over 50 % reduction in emissions.

As one of the foremost requirements of a subsea power delivery system is reliability, HVDC protection units must conform to extremely stringent specifications in terms of fault interruption time and fault level. However, a major challenge in the growth of DC power market is the lack of reliable protection against short-circuit faults. A fault in a DC system results in fast ramp up of the fault current. Moreover, DC fault current does not experience any natural zero-crossing. Therefore, DC circuit breakers (DCCBs) should be capable of fast fault quenching in order to prevent damage to the DC system and maintain grid resiliency. Additionally, a DCCB should operate with minimal power loss as a closed switch. Fault interruption using a DCCB causes enormous energy dissipation and voltage stress. If a DC fault current is 4-5 times higher than the rated DCCB, then it cannot work efficiently without expanding its components. Therefore, the use of a fault current limiter is essential, and the superconducting fault current limiter (SFCL) is the most promising choice together with a fast-switching DCCB in series. Resistive type superconducting fault current limiter (R-SFCL) is one of the most ideal, compact, small size current limiting devices to protect the power system and electrical equipment. It can limit the fault current effectively in power systems where CBs can work safely and prevent damage to the circuit components within several milliseconds.

Block diagram of the system for integration of renewable energy sources
Block diagram of the system for integration of renewable energy sources
  • Additional Media Assets:
  • Overarching Goal:

    To design and develop a MERIT system for integrating renewable energy sources, energy storage and the Medium-Voltage Direct Current (MVDC) grid with the subsea loads. The project also explores the control strategy of the MERIT system to reduce the intermittency of the renewable energy sources, in order to ensure the safety and stability of the grid interconnection. Another goal is to assess the performance of Coupled Inductor Hybrid Circuit Breaker (CIHCB) Topology with integration of Resistive-Superconducting Fault Current Limiter (R-SFCL)

  • Industry Impact:

    The estimated financial loss for incidents due to poor power quality in the O&G sector is $300,000-800,000 a day. To increase the energy efficiency and reduce the CO2 and NOx emissions, several solutions have been proposed in the literature. Among these solutions, the supply of electric power to the subsea loads from the shore as HVAC (50 Hz/60 Hz) or HVDC power transmission has been increasingly examined. In addition, other techniques such as low frequency AC transmission from the shore have also been considered. In order to supply reliable power to the subsea loads at high system efficiency and low emissions, there is a growing interest in employing offshore renewable resources close to the point of use. However, such a system has predominantly stayed in the conceptual stage so far. Hence, there is a compelling need to develop technical methodologies for interconnecting multiple megawatt-scale systems offshore.

    The MERIT system incorporates features like instantaneous voltage compensation, power outage compensation, fault isolation, and bi-directional power flow capability. Widespread implementation of the developed synergies will improve the economics of both renewables and oil and gas projects and can lead to over 50% reduction in the emissions caused by the activities in oil and gas production.

  • Project Goals:

    The overarching aim of the proposed project is to explore and develop a system of Multi-port Energy Routers using Intelligent Transformers (MERIT) to interface renewable resources and subsea oil and gas (O&G) factories with the High Voltage DC, ‘HVDC’ (or Medium Voltage DC, ‘MVDC’) Grid. This research intends to advance the state-of-the-art power converter hardware and control technologies to enable seamless energy transfer between offshore renewable energy sources, subsea loads (such as in O&G factories) and the DC grid to improve the system efficiency, reliability and availability. The project will also evaluate the integration of fault current limiters including the possibility of adding resistive superconducting fault current limiter (R-SFCL) in series with hybrid DC circuit breakers (HCBs) to lower the high fault current to such a level where circuit breakers can operate safely.

  • Tasks:
    1. Study the different types of loads in an offshore oil & gas (O&G) production system, focusing on the subsea factories and design the electrical architecture of an offshore wind energy farm to interface with the DC grid (Type of Tasks: software and real-time simulation)
    2. Design a MERIT system to interconnect hybrid renewable energy sources (including wind and fuel cells) with subsea loads (Type of Tasks: software and real-time simulation)
    3. Explore the integration of additional renewable energy sources – such as floating solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, battery energy storage (BES) and wave energy – with the MERIT system in order to supply 100 % of the demand of the subsea factory using renewable energy resources via HVDC or MVDC link (Type of Tasks: software and real-time simulation)
    4. Design, build, control and evaluate a lab-scale three-terminal MERIT system using solid state transformer (SSTs) as a proof of concept (Type of Tasks: hardware experiments)
    5. Investigate the fault limiting performance of a coupled-inductor based fast switching DCCBs (Type of Tasks: software simulations)
    6. Evaluate fault interruption capability under various network conditions to obtain the optimum configuration with R-SFCL integrated in series with DCCB (Type of Tasks: software simulations)
  • Gantt Chart:
  • Highlights:
    • Completed study of electrical loads in offshore O&G production system
    • Simulated system level architecture to interconnect offshore wind farm via DC collection grid
    • Task I completed
    • Discussion with industry partners on the voltage/power levels, made design updates
    • Design and development of the proposed MERIT system to interconnect multiple renewable energy sources with subsea loads
    • Simulation of fault interruption of CIHCB and the modular DCCB
  • Key Findings:
    1. Obtained the load profile of a typical subsea field. To supply the power to the subsea field, the required number of wind turbines and backup energy sources were determined
    2. Developed electrical architecture of a subsea field with an energy router to interface wind power and backup energy sources
    3. Multiport Energy Router (MER) was realized by using series-parallel combination of medium frequency based Triple Active Bridge Converters to achieve considerable reduction in footprint in the offshore platform
    4. Developed energy management scheme for the MERIT system facilitates. The intermittency of the wind power can be mitigated
    5. Optimized number of the wind turbine, solar panels, wave energy converter and battery storage capacity to operate the MERIT system autonomously. Cost of the generated renewable energy will be minimum due to the adopted optimization technique
    6. Proposed a control scheme for the MER for controlling the power flow among the ports
    7. Verified the performance of R-SFCL integrated coupled inductor hybrid circuit breaker (CIHCB) topology
    8. Considering the fast response times and reduction in ratings of main breaker, integration of R-SFCL with proposed DC circuit breakers is an optimal solution for protection of subsea HVDC systems
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 03/31/2022
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigators: Zheng Chen UH  | Gangbing Song UH

Offshore drilling activities over the last decades have left thousands of offshore platforms in bad condition and abandoned because of impropriate maintenance and operation. This is in part due to the expense and time-consuming nature of manual inspection and maintenance in the remote offshore environment. Those offshore platforms will not only be re-used in renewable energy sector (thermal, offshore wind, and tidal), but also in space sector. For example, the offshore platform could be used by NASA or space tech companies for rocket launching and landing pads. Some reported news indicate that Space-X will reuse the existing offshore platforms as spaceports for its re-usable rockets. Timely inspection and maintenance of the existing offshore platform is of great interest of Texas economy.

To extend the lifetime of existing platforms, timely inspection and maintenance of platform infrastructures are of great importance. Among those critical components in offshore operations, 1) valves and 2) bolted connections are high priority to assess for failure.

One of the challenges in valve operation is the valve's failure caused by rust. Mild rust can cause the valve's rough operation. Excessive rust may lead to permanent structural damage and cause serious leakage. Preventing a valve's failure requires regular inspection and maintenance. As most of the platforms are designed with a limited area and multi-level structure (Fig. 1), an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) should be capable of making a small radius turning and climb up/down stairs to qualify the job.

Tapping and listening, also called percussion, is an intuitive way to detect structural abnormality, which has been used by us to invent a new approach to monitoring the looseness of bolted connections.

Fig. 1. Compact area with stairs in oil platform Fig. 1. Compact area with stairs in oil platform
  • Industry Impact:

    A timely inspection of infrastructure, especially topside valves in platforms are thus the key to extend the lifetime of an offshore asset. Current inspection techniques often involve trained human operators and requires excessive amounts of time and money. With state-of-the-art robotic and inspection technologies, such limitations may be remediated and a much-needed extra layer of safety will be added. Robotic enabled valve maintenance not only reduces costs and increases accuracy, but also prevents workers from contacting the leaking valves. Robots do not experience fatigues or loose concentration and can work continuously, and in general robotic approaches are effective and less prone to error.

    Combining this work with percussion holds much potential in monitoring the looseness of subsea bolted connection due to its simplicity and suitability with robotics integration.

  • Project Goals:

    The goal of this project is to develop transformative robotic valve inspection technology that will lead to a time efficient and cost-effective system for valve inspection and maintenance which can extend the life cycle of existing oil platforms. Through the proposed autonomous robotic system (i.e., autonomous ground service) equipped with valve operation and inspection tool, valve anomalies due to mechanical failures will be detected at early stages, which allows operators to make informed decisions on maintenance and repairs of abnormal valves.

    This project will also develop robotics enabled percussion approach to subsea connection inspection. Since the Grayloc clamp connectors, with the advantages of compact design, are commonly used in oil and gas industry, in this research both flange type and Grayloc connections under the submerged condition will be experimentally studied. Via a remote operated vehicle (ROV) that is equipped with a hydrophone, a visual-servoing system, and a percussion component, we can detect bolt looseness in subsea flanges and Grayloc connections.

  • Tasks:
    This research includes the following specific tasks:
    1. Develop a ground service robot that can climb stairs and track lanes in oil platforms
    2. Develop a valve inspection tool that can detect stuck valves while operating them
    3. Develop a vision-based lane tracking for the robot to track lanes in oil platforms
    4. Develop a vision-based recognition algorithm to locate valves for inspection
    5. Develop a machine-learning based underwater percussion method
    6. Develop a tapping and listening device to enable percussion based bolted structure inspection
    7. Conduct comprehensive testing after integration of key components

    Ultimately, the project will push the boundaries of what can be accomplished by integrating robotics and structural health monitoring technologies.

  • Gantt Chart:
  • Highlights:
    • Set up testbed and designed new tool for valve operation and inspection
    • Demonstrated the percussion method for monitoring flange looseness is effective for under water application
    • Demonstrated stair climbing using mobile platform
    • Fabricated and tested a new tool for valve operation and inspection
    • Programmed a Husky unmanned ground vehicle
    • Tested YOLO algorithm for valve detection
    • Conducted more test of percussion based bolted structure inspection
    • Fabricated a robotic tapping device
    • Set up a (32' long x 16' wide x 4.3' deep) research tank for comprehensive testing
  • Keyfindings:
    • Developed a mobile platform which can climb stairs
    • Developed>Developed a valve operation and inspection tool
    • Developed a visual serving control for the mobile platform to track the detected lane
    • Developed a machine learning based valve detection algorithm
    • Developed a machine learning approach to train in-air and in-water impact-induced sound signals
    • Developed a deep learning approach to train in-air and in-water impact-induced sound signals
    • Classified flange looseness status to five classes using the proposed approaches
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 03/31/2022
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigators: Aaron Becker UH  | Miao Pan UH  | Julien Leclerc UH

Wireless remote operated vehicle (ROV) communications and localization are topics of research in academia and industry due to the challenges the medium imposes on transmission methods. Electromagnetic (EM) waves attenuate severely due to water's high conductivity, while vision-based approaches require line-of-sight and are affected by turbidity.

Acoustic transmissions are currently the dominant technology in use for underwater wireless communications. They can operate at long ranges and can be used for localization. However, they suffer from low data rate, high propagation delay, and high susceptibility to acoustic noise.

Magnetic induction (MI) systems have been proposed as an alternative for underwater localization and communications. MI refers to the near-field component of the magnetic field of a transmitting antenna. Because the field is mostly reactive in this region, it penetrates lossy media better than traditional RF methods that operate in the far-field. MI coils are low-cost devices that could enable more widespread use of automated underwater maintenance systems. Besides communication and localization, MI coils can be used to locate metallic structures by sensing the change in the magnetic field caused by the material. This type of detection could help prevent collisions or identify structures.

MI communications do not suffer from propagation delay and do not require line of sight. However, they have a limited range, a low bandwidth, and directional ambiguity. A hybrid method relying on both MI and acoustic transmissions would leverage both technologies' advantages and mitigate the effect of each method's weaknesses.

MI is a promising technology, but research remains to be made to design a performant, reliable device. For example, electromagnetic interferences can affect MI localization and communications. Solutions to reduce the effect of electromagnetic noise must be studied.

Underwater vehicles need high accuracy, shortrange non-optical localization. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are relied on for subsea inspection, maintenance, and repair of structures where access by human personnel is dangerous. Work on subsea trees requires the ROV to accurately approach and manipulate controls. When the ROV needs to recharge or share high bandwidth information, the ROV must dock with subsea structures. These types of maneuvers require precise localization, which is often performed using cameras and optical tracking. Collisions during these activities are dangerous for both the structure and the ROVs. Optical methods using lasers and/or a visual fiducial system have some limitations, especially in debris-filled or silt-laden water. Additionally, optical systems require a line-of-sight between the sensor and the target.

Competing technologies include acoustic localization and EM-based localization. Acoustic communications are commonly used for long range localization (meter to kilometers), but even the best accuracy of Long-baseline (LBL) systems is in the ±0.01 m range. Acoustic localization is limited by acoustic noise, and many operations (drilling, blowout) are acoustically noisy.

  • Additional Media Assets:
  • Industry Impact:

    Discussions with commercial advisors helped us outline some of the shortcomings of current EM based localization systems, including low range due to high attenuation and potential interference from metallic structures.

    We have conducted preliminary studies on the use of triaxial magnetic induction (MI) coil antennas for localization at short distances between robots. At this range, MI antennas are affordable to produce and deploy (no moving parts), and have strong, high bandwidth signals that do not require line of sight. Their unique capabilities may be particularly suited for missions that require robots to dock with subsea structures.

  • Project Goals:

    This project will focus on magnetic induction (MI) 1) for high-accuracy, short-range, non-optical localization of remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROV), and 2) in conjunction with acoustic modems to optimize communications between a maneuvering ROV and a sensor buoy.

    This project proposes to solve several key challenges that need to be investigated to achieve high accuracy underwater localization and performant communication.

    MI coils can sense the change in magnetic field distribution caused by metal structures, especially steel and other ferromagnetic materials. These coils can provide an additional sensing modality for structure identification and anti-collision with pipes and other subsea structures. Our proposal will explore this sensing modality.

    The proposed project will also theoretically study the use of MI in conjunction with an acoustic system for the communication between ROVs and underwater sensor nodes. The ROV can utilize MI to communicate with nodes close to it, and acoustics to communicate with those further away. In cases where the environment considerably hinders acoustic communication with certain nodes, the AUV can also automatically switch to MI transmissions. This has the potential of speeding up data transfer with a sensor network and reducing mission time or providing increased robustness of data acquisition.

    Figure 1: Our robots at NASA's NBL
    Figure 1: Our robots at NASA's NBL. Our previous project studied localization and collision-avoidance between two robots using triaxial antennas. Like all EM based systems, MI communications decay exponentially with distance, making them practical for high accuracy, short range positioning. The NBL facility enables accurate ground-truth measurements of robot position and orientation using computer vision (shown here). The NBL also has large-scale submerged metallic structures, which could be used in the fourth part of this study.
  • Tasks:
    In this project we propose to explore the design and implementation of a system that enables high-accuracy positioning with ROVs at close distances. Our goal is to produce theoretical and experimental insight towards the use of triaxial coil antennas to aid with subsea docking and localization. This study will test procedures for docking and maneuvering using triaxial magnetic induction. In this 12-month study, we propose to:
    1. Study short distance, high-accuracy MI-based localization
    2. Research software and hardware approaches to attenuate EM interference caused by the ROV thrusters and electronics
    3. Identify limitations of competing optical, acoustic, and RF localization technologies and compare these solutions with the proposed new method
    4. Investigate MI detection/tracking of steel structures
    5. Investigate the effect of updating the MI antenna design to be conformal to the frame of an AUV, with the goal of minimizing footprint of the antennas
  • Gantt Chart:
  • Highlights:
    • Conformal antennas have been constructed, waterproofed, and mounted on the remotely operated vehicle (ROV)
    • Multi-feedback bandpass filters work well at specified frequencies for electromagnetic interference (EMI) filtering
    • For MI-based Localization, the cable penetrator was fixed to the Doppler Velocity Logger (DVL) so it can be attached to the ROV’s electronics enclosure
    • A circuit was designed to oversample a received MI signal. This circuit uses a logarithmic amplifier like our previous approach to deal with the extensive dynamic range
    • We implemented Mᴀᴛʟᴀʙ functions that can compute the acoustic absorption coefficient as a function of the frequency and the acoustic path loss as a function of the transmission distance. These functions will be used to help select the most efficient transmission method (e.g. acoustic, MI, frequency range) depending on the distance and environment
  • Keyfindings:
    • Derived methods to estimate relative position and orientation of two sensor systems using only unsigned amplitude measurements.
    • Demonstrated that conformal electro-magnetic coils enable longer distance communication with a small impact on robot size and drag.
    • Demonstrated image transmission between underwater magnetic induction antennas.
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 04/30/2022
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigators: Zheng Chen UH  | Fathi Ghorbel RICE

Humans have created robots to help us perform tasks underwater. It will not be too long before we will see robots fully automate deepwater Gulf of Mexico exploration, production, and decommissioning. Subsea industry is quickly moving toward deeper waters, complex, challenging, and dynamic working environments, while requiring the highest level of safety. Tasks that have been historically undertaken by workers in shallow waters are now performed by Remotely Operated underwater Vehicles (ROV) at water depths that humans cannot support. Work-class ROVs (WROV), in particular, are being used for surveillance as well as for intervention.

ROVs suffer from several limitations including requirement of a large operating crew, a need of a dynamically positioned surface vessel, tether management, and high cost mobilization and demobilization. Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) are now emerging with new capabilities and technologies that could make them more efficient and more cost effective than ROVs. Hydrocarbon development environments of deep and ultra-deep water in the Gulf of Mexico and other regions in the world require AUVs that can autonomously operate in confined spaces and can perform forceful interactions with the assets. Hence, new paradigms in shape, autonomy, sensing and communication and physical capabilities are needed to make AUVs the tool of choice for deepwater industry.

Currently, subsea robots are built rigid and neutrally buoyant so that their volume remains unchanged despite the changing fluidic pressure. Although they are normally big and heavy, underwater service robots can take advantages of their neural buoyant state to save energy when they are maneuvering and operating in subsea environments. However, when ROVs perform tasks such as picking and placing tools or collecting disassembled parts in offshore asset's monitoring, repairing, and decommissioning, they will deviate from the neutral buoyancy state. Under such circumstances, the service robots must constantly actuate to maintain their depth, which is energy inefficient as was recently demonstrated by the PIs. AUVs rely on their thrusters and possibly a ballast to actively control buoyancy. This is achieved by thruster and pump control. If AUVs are involved in forceful interactions including lifting objects or executing a forceful act, thrusters and a ballast may not be fully adequate for real-time buoyancy control.

Fig. 1 shows an animation of a service underwater robot replacing a tool of a subsea asset to extend its lifetime.
Fig. 1 shows an animation of a service underwater robot replacing a tool of a subsea asset to extend its lifetime.
  • Additional Media Assets:
  • Industry Impact:

    Constantly monitoring and repairing subsea infrastructures and equipment play important roles in extending the lifetime of those multi-million-dollar offshore assets. Decommissioning of offshore assets also call for underwater service robots to disassemble the subsea infrastructures and cleanup the sea floor environment.

    Fine distributed buoyancy control, which is not feasible with current thruster/ballast mechanisms, will enable adaptive maneuvering and forceful interaction with the environment in confined spaces similar to how marine swimmers do. A combination of the traditional thruster/ballast mechanism for gross buoyancy and motion, and the proposed soft robotics mechanism (fuel cells/water electrolysers) for fine and distributed buoyancy will undoubtedly provide AUV's with unprecedented capabilities. The broader impact of this research includes the opportunities created in exploring and expanding solid state fuel cell/electrolyzing technology as a soft robotics mechanism to address immediate exploration and production challenges in the Gulf of Mexico. The results of this research will be valuable not only to international deepwater oil and gas markets, but also to subsea renewable energies and subsea mining.

  • Project Goals:

    The goal of this project is to develop more energy efficient underwater service robots by equipping them with a variable buoyancy system to fine-tune buoyancy, allowing them to remain neutrally buoyant and change their orientation during underwater operations (resident AUVs) and inspections with almost free consumed energy. Inspired by how marine animals control buoyancy in both open sea and confined spaces, the proposed research focuses on the problem of fine buoyancy control by exploring new enabling ideas from soft robotics. The objective of buoyancy control sought in this research would for example enable an underwater service robot shown in Figure 2 to pick up a load to measure its weight or carry it to a desired location for further processing.

    Figure 2: Underwater Service Robot Carrying and Processing a Load
    Figure 2: Underwater Service Robot Carrying and Processing a Load
  • Tasks:
    1. Develop Buoyancy Control Device Enabled by Reversible Fuel Cells
      • Task 1.1: Design a self-enclosed buoyancy control device to house an IPMC electrolyzer, a micro fuel cell, and two gas chambers. Demonstrate an open-loop control test
      • Task 1.2: Develop a back-stepping nonlinear control with a nonlinear observer
      • Task 1.3: Demonstrate an close-loop control of the BCD which can oat and sink with a large depth change (more than 3 m)
    2. Develop an Underwater Service Robot
      • Task 2.1: Develop two water-proof robotic grippers
      • Task 2.2: Integrate two BCDs and robotic grippers into the AUV
      • Task 2.3: Open-loop control test of underwater service robot
    3. Modeling and Control
      • Task 3.1: Develop 3D nonlinear dynamic model of the service robot
      • Task 3.2: Develop depth control for the service robot
      • Task 3.3: Develop orientation control of the service robot
    4. Comprehensive Test at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL)
    5. Senior Design Competition Between UH and Rice
  • Gantt Chart:
  • Highlights:
    • Developed a gas consumption rate control
    • Fabricated a service robot integrating a blue ROV, four BCDs, and a robotic gripper
    • Developed a nonlinear dynamic model of the service robot
    • Developed depth and orientation control using both hard and soft actuators for the service robot
    • Validated the control in simulation
  • Keyfindings:
    • Developed a volume-to-electricity engine enabled by reversible fuel cell
    • Developed buoyancy control device (BCD) using that engine
    • Developed a service robot with BCDs and robotic gripper
    • Developed a 6-DOF dynamic model for the service robot
    • Developed a hybrid control of hard and soft actuators for both depth and orientation control.
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 08/31/22
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigators: Haleh Ardebili UH  | Rafael Verduzco RICE

Pipeline networks are the most efficient method to transport oil, gas, and other liquids, but leaks are common and oftentimes go undetected. Leaks can result in billions of dollars of property damage, represent significant losses of revenue, and present significant safety challenges. Pipeline networks rely on a Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) system to monitor changes in pressure, flowrate, and other pipeline characteristics3 along with a Computational Pipeline Monitoring System (CPM) to analyze the data and detect leaks. However, a recent study found that the CPM could only identify 19 % of pipeline leaks. These failures include large leaks, especially for complex pipeline networks with multiple entry points.

  • Industry Impact:

    The novelty of the work is in the development of a new, low-cost, wireless sensor for selective chemical detection in deep sea environments. Prior work has not explored the combination of organic electrochemical transistors (OECTs) or thin film transistors (TFTs) with molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs) for selective chemical sensing or the development and testing of OECTs and TFTs in seawater. The results of this work will demonstrate a proof-of-principle of versatile, low-cost sensors that can aid in the early detection for leak and spillage detection.

    Figure 1: Schematic for an organic electrochemical transistor
    Figure 1: Schematic for an organic electrochemical transistor with an MIP layer shown in purple, a proposed sensor array, and sensors in a distributed pipeline network, which can respond to leaks and spills in the vicinity of the sensor

    Altogether, this work will demonstrate a novel platform for continuous, real-time monitoring of chemicals and contaminants underwater. This will enable more rapid detection of leaks and contaminants during deep sea operations. Furthermore, the sensors proposed are compact and easy to fabricate, resulting in low-cost devices that can be fabricated to scale and replaced when necessary.

  • Project Goals:

    To address the failure of CPM to identify leaks, we will develop a precise and sensitive amperometric sensor platform based on molecular-level recognition by molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs) and electronic transduction through organic thin film transistors (TFTs) and organic electrochemical transistors (OECTs). We will build a sophisticated real-time sensor for chemical binding events that can be used to detect the presence of specific chemicals in the aqueous environment. In the proposed research, we plan to create and use a modified electrochemical sensor model to investigate the performance of sensors at low temperatures and subsea conditions.

  • Tasks:
    1. Design and testing of MIP layers
    2. Fabrication and testing of OECTs and TFTs
    3. Integrate OECTs and TFTs with MIPs and analyze response to target chemicals
    4. Test integrated sensors in the presence of interfering species
    5. Develop a model for the response of OECTs and TFTs
  • Gantt Chart:
  • Significant Findings:


  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 08/31/22
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigators: Pulickel Ajayan RICE  | Babu Ganguli RICE

Li-ion batteries (LIBs) have long been limited to ambient temperatures and the internal electrochemical reactions and operating LIB’s has proven to cause thermal fluctuations that have led to battery explosions and safety issues. While past efforts to address these issues were focused on thermal management strategies, we have found that the performance and safety of LIBs at both low and high temperatures is inherently deep-rooted to their respective materials components, such as electrode and electrolyte materials, and the so-called solid-electrolyte interphases. In particular, there is no existing electrolyte chemistry that covers large temperature ranges, and devices are only stable and reliable at room temperature. Our group has successfully demonstrated that the complete replacement of a conventional liquid electrolyte and the polymeric separator with a single quasi-solid composite electrolyte can extend the temperature range of supercapacitors to 200oC and of LIBs to 150oC. These quasi-solid composites constitute a new class of electrolytes and are formed by the combination of ceramic nanomaterials and high-boiling point organic solvents and room temperature ionic liquids (RTILs). Such an electrolyte system allows us to utilize high energy density metallic lithium as the anode without compromising on safety.

  • Industry Impact:

    Materials and devices used in oil and gas (O&G) production and exploration experience extreme environmental conditions. With the continuous upsurge in demand for autonomous devices, there has been an increased need for energy storage systems that is high-energy and high-power that can operate safely under the most aggressive conditions.

  • Project Goals:

    The overarching scope of the proposed project is to develop and fabricate high-energy and high-power quasi-solid lithium batteries that can operate under a wide range of temperatures and pressure. Further, we plan to explore the possibilities of such batteries for various conditions including thermal/pressure fluctuations, leakage currents, self-discharge etc. and thus these devices provide safe and reliable power supply for extended operation of offshore infrastructure and continuous uninterrupted production from Deepwater facilities. More specifically the scope includes:

    • Optimization of quasi-solid lithium battery by balancing power and energy. Use of high energy density cathodes such as NCA and/or NMC against metallic lithium to build high energy/power lithium batteries
    • Compatibility studies of electrodes/quasi-solid electrolytes and electrochemical testes to understand battery life, stability (self-discharge) at high temp./pressure
  • Tasks:
    1. Combination of cathode and quasi-solid electrolyte systems
    2. Electrode assembly and quasi-solid-state batteries fabrication
    3. Electrochemical performance
  • Gantt Chart:
  • Significant Findings:


  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 08/31/22
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigators: Andrea Prosperetti, UH | Ramanan Krishnamoorti, UH | Konstantinos Kostarelos, UH | George Wong, UH
The dynamic effects of free‐bubble gas formation within deepwater marine drilling risers are a major issue for the offshore industry and recently emphasized in the CSB Macondo report.

In 2017, SSI received funding from National Academies of Science to study the dynamic effects of free‐bubble gas formation within deepwater marine drilling risers – a major issue for the offshore industry and emphasized in the CSB Macondo report. Over the past four years, researchers have:

  • Elucidated the reason for the destructive potential and seemingly sudden nature of gas kick events
  • Developed a new fast and sensitive detection method
  • Carried out experimental demonstration
  • Developed guidelines for implementation

The work produced several papers and in 2021 was highlighted at SPE, NAS and OTC. Please contact SSI if you’d like more information about this work.

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 11/30/2021
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigators: Zheng Chen, UH | Gangbing Song, UH
One of the fundamental building blocks of the subsea oil and gas industry are the thousands of miles of pipelines installed across the seabed, such as in the Gulf of Mexico. The pipelines serve to carry valuable fluids from subterranean reservoirs to the topside, and thus must be able to withstand years of high pressure, high temperature conditions. While subsea pipelines may be engineered to withstand such harsh conditions, unexpected events can prematurely cause failure of pipeline structures, including bolted flanges, welding, etc.

Such events are ideally mitigated by timely maintenance and inspection of subsea pipeline structures. However, such routine actions can be excessively costly and when divers are involved, the issue of safety becomes a major consideration. Furthermore, depending on the skill and experience of human operators, certain critically damaged components may be missed. Failures that occur from damages that were overlooked by inspection routines can have catastrophic consequences, leading to hundreds of fatalities and billions of dollars of damage over the past two decades.

The events have inspired the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to issue a recent public report highlighting the need for better detection of damage in subsea infrastructure, especially for bolted structures. Thus, the goal of this project is to develop transformative robotic and SmartTouch sensing technology, that will lead to a time efficient and cost-effective system for underwater pipeline inspection.

To achieve the research objective, we will investigate the following tasks:

  1. Develop SmartTouch sensing for pipeline structure inspection
  2. Design dexterous robotic manipulator for remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to deliver SmartTouch sensors to complex pipeline structures
  3. Develop force feedback sensing and grasping control for manipulator
  4. After integration of key components, conduct comprehensive testing

The tool integrates state-of-the-art robotic manipulator controls for ROV and the latest structural health monitoring and inspection methods to automate pipeline inspection, including loosened connectors and deformed pipelines inspection. With the developed technology of pipeline structures will be safer, more economical, and more accurate. Completion of the proposed solution will open the doors to applications for inspection of other kinds of subsea structures. With proper implementation, the rate of subsea pipeline failure and related accidents will decrease, and subsea operations will be free to expand at faster rate than before.

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 10/31/2020
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigators: Zheng Chen, UH | John Allen
Normally-unmanned installations (NUIs) are becoming more prevalent throughout the oil and gas industry. These installations seek to decrease risk and cost to oil and gas companies by removing humans from routine yet dangerous operational environments. However, in practice humans are required to visit and maintain these NUIs much more often than desired. Robotic assets deployed on these platforms could mitigate this risk and cost by managing tasks that require physical interaction, thereby reducing the need for direct human intervention. At the same time, many existing platforms cannot be retrofitted to operate as NUIs. Dexterous robots that can operate in human-engineered environments would allow for the conversion of these existing platforms, greatly expanding the benefit of NUI operations across the industry.

Separate to this industry need, NASA is planning beyond-Earth orbit missions involving human habitats that will be unmanned for the majority of their lives. NASA currently seeks to understand how robots can assist in maintaining these habitats prior to, and following, crew missions. NASA awarded Northeastern University a Valkyrie humanoid robot for the work in their Robotics and Intelligent Vehicles Research Laboratory. SSI will collaborate with the PIs, Professors Taskin Padir and Robert Platt of Northeastern University with the objective to facilitate a testing opportunity for the SmartTouch integration with their Valkyrie robot. The goal of this proposed project is to increase the ability of robotic assets to manage the physical operations and tasks necessary for both oil platform and spacecraft habitat maintenance. In support of this goal, the specific technical objective of the project is to advance the autonomous skills of dexterous robots capable of performing these remote tasks. This will assist remote human operators by reducing their cognitive workload during operations, and promises to increase task efficiency and improve safety at remote sites in the future.

It is recognized that robots will not be completely autonomous in the near future, and therefore will not be eliminating all human support of NUIs. However, baseline autonomous skills that allow remote robots to perceive their environment and manipulate objects within that environment will significantly enhance the ability to perform highly complex tasks without a physical human presence at remote installations. Better manipulation for fine, dexterous tasks, including soft robotics and drones, and advanced perception to decrease the need for real-time human intervention will facilitate a more timely integration of robots into existing platform operations, while improving the survivability of unmanned space-based habitats. SSI is currently exploring collaboration opportunities with local energy companies and other governmental agencies in similar technology areas. If these partnerships come to fruition, the work proposed here will leverage this synergy to demonstrate even further advanced capabilities.

This project will address the following specific research actions:

  • Opening door tool design and pickup
  • Design door opening robot and open the door
  • Transition through the door
  • Comprehensive testing: Fabricating the door fixture and testing
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 10/31/2020
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigator: Aaron Becker, UH
ROVs are high-value assets sent to areas difficult to access. Consequently, they are used in the oil and gas industry for tasks which can be dangerous for human personnel, such as rig inspection. Collision avoidance is a paramount concern to protect both subsea assets and the robots themselves. This is necessary, because servicing an ROV stranded subsea would require rescue missions that scale in complexity. In addition, AUV swarms require low-cost, robust methods to avoid agent-agent collisions.

The Robotic Swarm Control Lab and collaborators have designed and tested tri-axial antennas for underwater AUVs and ROVs [1]. Pairs of these antennas could be implemented to rapidly measure relative 6-DOF range and orientation between pairs of AUVs and/or AUVs and underwater assets.

This study will test procedures for collision avoidance using triaxial magnetic induction and computer vision. In this study, we propose to:

  • Design TX/RX Control Circuits for Triaxial Antennas
  • Generate 3D Models for Transmission Power Between Antenna Pairs
  • Validate models through underwater tests at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab
  • Design safe avoidance control laws for ROVs equipped with new sensors

The main goal is to lay the theoretical foundations and validate a hardware prototype for a multi-sensor navigation-aid system that will efficiently and economically provide collision avoidance for multiple robots deployed for high-risk subsea inspection jobs. We will focus on vision control as well as magnetic induction for the short-ranged path-planning and communication required to fulfill oil rig inspection job requirements. The magnetic induction system will exploit range and bearing information, as well as transmit high bandwidth relative localization data when robots are nearby. This will enable sharing data gathered by alternate sensing modalities. For this proposal, we will share camera data from multiple cameras located in our ROV.

  • Magnetic Induction Remotely Operated Vehicles for Subsea Collision Avoidance

    Dr. Aaron Becker

    Dr. Aaron Becker's Robotic Swarm Control Lab at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering tests subsea ROV transmission and receiving technology at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Research is supported by the Subsea Systems Institute at the University of Houston.

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 10/31/2020
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigator: Zheng Chen, UH
The 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) hosted by the Department of Defense spurred numerous robotic innovations from engineering teams around the world. The goal of the DRC was to make society more resilient through the development of robotics that can engage in humanitarian work (e.g. rescue efforts, maintenance in harsh environments, disaster relief, etc.). The NASA R5, a.k.a., Valkyrie humanoid robot was a consequence of the DRC and the Valkyrie brought about advances especially in robotic manipulation and supervisory control technologies.

Through its unique combination of sensor arrays, locomotive capabilities and dexterous manipulators, the Valkyrie possessed multiple functions and is designed to operate in harsh or degraded human-engineered environments. One such demonstrated function was the ability to interact with construction, such as scaffolding. While the ability to assemble human made structures is crucial to the humanitarian objectives of the Valkyrie or any other similar robots, equally important is the ability to accurately inspect and maintain existing infrastructures.

Due to the difficulty of using conventional inspection tools via remotely controlled robotic manipulators, there is no easy way to know for certain that the structural work performed by the robot is viable (e.g. bolt may not be tightened adequately at a key connection). Recently, researchers at the University of Houston have developed a non-invasive SmartTouch inspection tool designed for use by subsea ROVs/AUVs to easily inspect connections with a simple touch.

With further work, the SmartTouch technology can be adapted for use in robots such as the Valkyrie with far reaching advantages in their mission to benefit society. Thus, this proposal briefly outlines the research that can make such an adaptation possible.

Overall, the goal of the proposed work is to integrate SmartTouch into the manipulators of the Valkyrie to enable one-touch inspection capabilities. The research will encompass the following tasks:

  • Sensor Design
  • Force Feedback Control
  • Comprehensive Testing at UH
  • Integration and Testing with a Valkyrie simulator at UH
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 10/31/2020
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigators: Haleh Ardebili, UH | Rafael Verduzco, Rice
The main goal of this project is to design and fabricate polymer-based flexible and safe lithium ion batteries able to operate under subsea conditions. Potential applications include powering devices in underwater vehicles, emergency outage backup power, and subsea drilling structural energy storage. The device should be reliable, safe and able to instantly provide power for subsea applications.

Several research groups will collaborate in this project, namely, Haleh Ardebili at the University of Houston, Rafael Verduzco at Rice University, and William Walker at NASA. All experimental and computational modeling efforts are dedicated to developing lithium ion batteries that can deliver effective power under subsea environment.

This work will pave the way for novel and improved energy storage solutions such as flexible batteries for subsea applications and expand their electrochemical performances, allowing the batteries to operate at temperatures as low as 0° Celsius. This device will reliably provide a safer environment for the exploration and production of oil in subsea conditions, and to deliver high- power for a range of subsea needs.

The specific goals of this project are (a) design and fabricate batteries that provide steady and long-term power and voltage at low temperature (UH); (b) Boost the performance of the battery through enhancing the battery materials properties through novel material designs and high resolution and rigorous characterization techniques (UH and Rice) (c) develop thermo-electrochemical model and conduct the simulation at low temperature to validate the experimental results (UH and NASA).

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 3/31/2020
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigator: Gangbing Song, UH
This work will produce a new, stress wave based communication method using piezoelectric transducers to be used for subsea communication. Utilizing specially designed sensor nodes, data will be gathered, encoded, and transmitted through subsea pipelines. The scientific impact of this work centers on the installation of sensor nodes as a way to propagate the entire system of subsea pipelines as a web of pathways for stress wave based communication along the network of sensor nodes.

The Gulf of Mexico (GOM) contains a major infrastructure of pipelines and subsea facilities supporting exploration and production activities. GOM operators will benefit from more robust communications resulting in improved real time monitoring capability and a significant reduction in costs related to subsea data transmission. Industry support will be provided by OneSubsea, APS Technology and Halliburton.

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 8/31/2019
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigator: Fathi Ghorbel, Rice
Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) are now emerging with new capabilities and technologies that can make them more efficient and more cost effective than Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV). The proposed research is the first phase of an overall program to address some of these technological challenges.  The objective is to develop an AUV prototype that will be highly maneuverable in tight spaces, can hold station vertically, can perform docking, and will be capable of autonomous manipulation.

The program will advance several aspects of AUV technological challenges in autonomy, sensing, and physical capabilities. Specifically, advances will be made in thruster technology and sensing which will enable high maneuverability in tight spaces. The research approach will leverage advances made by the Robotics & Intelligent Systems Lab at Rice University in swimming robotic inspection of above- ground oil storage tanks, and NASA’s robotics, automation, and guidance technologies, and its Neutral Buoyancy Lab infrastructure.

The objective of this initial Phase 1 funding award consists of two levels with a final goal of establishing a future sound and comprehensive program in autonomous AUVs for subsea energy applications with engagement and endorsement of major operators. The specific goals of the project are as follows:

  • Program 1: Organize a workshop to engage industry in overviewing the state of the art of AUV technology and build a collaborative relationship with operators in subsea energy applications to define the new challenges of subsea AUVs. The objective is to identify the end user mission requirements, the status of AUV research and technology development within industry and the target areas for defining the future research objectives for this project.
  • Program 2: Build an updated, more functional and more robust version of the Rice University RiSYS Lab swimming robot prototype shown below to be tested at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab. In Phase 1 of the project, the robot’s hydrodynamic shape (referred to as Problem 1 in original proposal document), thrusters and their configurations (Problem 2 in original proposal document), and design of new bidirectional thrusters (Problem 3 in original proposal document) will not be addressed. This grant funding will be used to build one (1), updated AUV prototype from the existing unit.
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 8/31/2018
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigator: Robert Stewart, UH
In the Gulf of Mexico, there are some 25,000 miles of pipelines crisscrossing the seafloor and about 3,000 producing wells with their associated platforms (Edelstein, 2015). The Gulf currently produces approximately 20% (1.7 million barrels of oil per day – EIA, 2016) of the US oil total. The overall goal of this project is to develop vibration monitoring systems to improve the safety and cost-effectiveness of subsea petroleum monitoring and production. Anything that compromises this activity can have serious economic or environmental consequences. Wells and pipelines can be subject to untoward events or processes (e.g., corrosion, plugging, leakage, storms, seafloor instabilities).

Thus, monitoring oil and gas flow in pipelines (and risers and sub-bottom casings) is critical to assess conduit integrity and as well as optimize overall production performance. This proposal focuses on reservoir characterization, underwater communication and infrastructure integrity assurance. This work will develop a proof-of-concept marine, fiber-optic vibration sensing system – an instrumented flow loop for the lab and field. Along with associated analysis and interpretation methods, this system will provide learnings for improved subsea reservoir monitoring and production. Industry support will come in the form of collaborations with Apache Corp., Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Optasense and Halliburton.

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 8/31/2018
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigators: James Tour, Rice | Haleh Ardebili, UH
During the Macondo well disaster there were two instances of miswiring and two backup battery failures affecting the electronic and hydraulic controls for the blowout preventer (BOP)’s blind shear ram (BSR) – an emergency hydraulic device with two sharp cutting blades. Due to the backup battery failures, the BOP’s blind shear ram was not functioning as intended and was unable to control the well by cleanly cutting the drill pipe and containing the well.

The goal of this project is to directly address one of the critical failures that occurred during this major accident by developing a combination of two new technologies using batteries and high-power supercapacitors. The batteries provide the trickle charge to the high-power supercapacitors which provide the necessary power to activate the blind shear ram. This work will pave the way for improved energy storage and power supply solutions that enable not only next generation blowout preventers to reliably operate and provide a safer environment for the exploration and production of oil in subsea environments, but to provide electrical high-power for a range of subsea equipment needs.

The specific goals are to:

  • Design and fabricate high power, high voltage nanoporous nickel fluoride (NP-NF) thin-film supercapacitors
  • Design and fabricate high capacity, thin-film Li ion batteries to trickle charge the supercapacitors
  • Stack and integrate NP-NF thin-film supercapacitors with thin-film Li ion batteries
  • Develop a prototype supercapacitor-battery unit for electrical testing under subsea environmental conditions at 16,000 psi
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 8/31/2018
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigators: Matthew Franchek, UH | Matthew Brake, Rice
A blowout preventer (BOP) is a large, specialized mechanical device, used to seal, control and monitor oil and gas wells to prevent blowout, the uncontrolled release of crude oil and/or natural gas from well.  A typical subsea deep water blowout preventer system includes components such as electrical and hydraulic lines, control pods, hydraulic accumulators, test valve, kill and choke lines and valves, riser joint, hydraulic connectors, and a support frame  This work will produce a BOP Monitoring System capable of self-integration whereby it learns the specific BOP thereby enabling accurate estimations of BOP health.

The scientific impact of this work centers on the creation of an Information Synthesis (IS) monitoring knowledge base applicable to a broad range of subsea systems. The proposed IS technology complements the data fusion knowledge by synthesizing information via dynamic adaptive models. Using the adapted model coefficients, BOP health and remaining useful life estimations will be recovered in a rigorous mathematical formulation.

  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 3/31/2018
    Project Completion Stage:
Principal Investigators: Robert Stewart, UH
This project is the first phase in a project to address the areas of early kick detection, wellbore monitoring, blow-out preventer (BOP) validation and monitoring, and remotely operated vehicle and subsea processing via subsea monitoring. The project will adapt existing seismic technology for surveying geological formations to the specific purpose of monitoring the health of subsea drilling or production systems. The project will also develop a proof-of-concept monitoring system for the early detection and assessment of drilling or production problems.

The proposed monitoring system consists of three components:

  1. Fiber-optic motion sensors (distributed acoustic systems - DAS) on the riser to monitor hydrocarbon flow and pressure transients. The riser is a flow line from the sea floor to the surface platform and forms part of an existing production facility. There is no additional funding to the project for this component.
  2. Ocean-bottom seismometers (OBS) arrayed around the well-head to detect gas and over-pressure zones, microseismic events, and sediment deformation.
  3. Active sonar scanners near the BOP to create 3D images of the wellhead vicinity and possible hydrocarbon leaks.

These instruments would continuously monitor and provide information to assess drilling progress, facility integrity, production state, and anomalies. The project will develop a proof-of-concept monitoring system for the early detection and assessment of drilling or production problems. It will thus inform about the design and capability of a full field system which will contribute substantially toward the safety and efficacy of deep-water operations.

The specific goals of the first phase of the project are as follows:

  1. Host an industry workshop
  2. Investigate and confirm the application of seismic instrumentation for the monitoring of the integrity of drilling and production systems through the use of:
    • Distributed Acoustic Systems (DAS)
    • Sonar
    • Ocean-bottom seismometers (OBS)
  • Status: AWARD END DATE: 12/31/2016
    Project Completion Stage: