Technology to enable high-speed data transfer underwater holds great promise for subsea installations, but bringing reli­able wi-fi to the deep presents considerable challenges.

BP and other offshore oil and gas players have been working to overcome the technical hurdles related to the emerging technology of subsea wireless communications.

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The chief obstacle is the water column itself and the way light and sound move through it, according to Ken Nguyen, BP’s principal portfolio manager for the Mad Dog Phase 2 project.

“You can use acoustic, radio or laser, but each has their own challenge,” he says. “Acoustic is [what] we use today, but it is slow, and the latency, or time it takes to send a signal from one place to another, is high.”

Radio is limited in bandwidth and can transmit only so much data.

The use of lasers in underwater optical wireless communication systems opens a new realm of possibilities, but also challenges that BP and technology companies are working to overcome.

Blue-light laser

“What we’re really going after, but haven’t fully implemented because the technology is not fully mature, is blue-light laser,” Nguyen says.

This system uses a networked grid of sensors that quickly transmits data at low latency from one node to the next.

“Essentially you would have to light up the entire field like a Christmas tree with these nodes, because the system is limited by how far light can travel in the water column, which is only about 100 feet,” Nguyen says. “So, you have to install enough in the field for the system to work.”

There are other challenges, but the technology’s significant potential explains why BP is working to advance subsea wireless communications.

“We see the potential there for use if we have a resident ROV [remotely operated vehicle] system in the future,” he says, citing one example.

“It would eliminate the need to mobilise a vessel for ROV-based inspection or maintenance work.

“A resident ROV is like a Roomba in your house," Nguyen says, referencing a brand of robotic vacuum cleaner. "Except it resides on the seafloor and can go do routine inspections, or possibly some light well intervention in real time.”

Feeling blue: Blue-light laser could potentially serve as a new medium for delivering large volumes of data quickly in subsea wireless communications Photo: REUTERS/SCANPIX