Expert Advice: Critical Offshore Applications of SBAS GNSS

July 1, 2011  - By 0 Comments
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James D. Litton, President/CEO, Litton Consulting Group

Precise positioning of many different kinds of vessels and other equipment depend upon satellite-based augmentation systems (SBAS) of GNSS, principally GPS and GLONASS at this time. The applications range from exploration to production and delivery of hydrocarbons to shore-based installations and navigation of very large crude carriers, or oil tankers. Decisions and recommendations are strongly needed to keep these services free from interference.

It is fallacious to think that because LightSquared or similar use of out-of-band high-power terrestrial radiation would be confined to a continental region (physically impossible, in any case), that no harm would accrue to offshore navigation assets. The three principal suppliers of these offshore precise positioning services are Fugro’s Starfix services, C&C Technology’s C-Nav which utilizes John Deere/NavCom’s StarFire systems, and Subsea 7’s Veripos system.

All of these systems depend upon GNSS reference receivers placed around the world in networks which depend upon corrections that are derived from regionally sited reference stations. The 10-centimeter level of precision now required for many of the most dangerous and valuable applications requires, in turn, centimeter-level accuracy in base stations in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

Inmarsat frequencies allocated to these applications for delivery of the differential corrections generated by these reference stations have been in use for both the huge number of land applications (agriculture, infrastructure development, river and harbor navigation, seismic exploration, pipeline surveys, etc) and offshore applications. Changing these frequencies is feasible only at great cost to both Inmarsat and the many on- and offshore uses. Inmarsat may be compensated by LightSquared for its costs, but not so the many millions of dollars of expense to offshore and onshore operators in down time, redesign and reprogramming of receivers, and suspension of critical operations.

The offshore applications outlined here are just a few of the more familiar. No attempt has been made to capture all of these applications in this short memorandum, but operators in this industry, represented by the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA), have made their position clear in the attached letter to the FCC.

Major Offshore Applications

Exploration. Modern seismic exploration depends upon seismic streamers many kilometers long. Several such streamers (containing thousands of hydrophones for capturing reflections from deep beneath the ocean floor and determining the structure and composition of the strata which may contain hydrocarbons) are towed by each ship. The seismic profiles which result are depicted in three dimensions with great precision. Discovery and assessment of such strata depend sensitively upon the positioning accuracy of these streamers, which, in turn, depend sensitively on the position of the vessel with respect to the center of the earth, because the vessel’s trajectory is the reference for the relative positioning of the streamers by magnetic and inertial means, sometimes augmented by GNSS receivers integrated into the seismic streamers.

Drilling. Increasingly, drill rigs and drill ships are placed and maintained in position by dynamic positioning systems that depend upon augmented GNSS systems for stabilizing the massive structures over the well head. In deep water (more than 5,000 feet), only dynamic positioning through the use of massive thrusters (such as those employed by the Deepwater Horizon vessel of Transocean in the Macondo well disaster, commonly referred to as the BP disaster) is feasible. With as much as 10,000 feet of riser attached to these drill ships between the well head and the ship, safe operation is critically dependent upon very precise positioning of the vessel. Further, down-hole positioning depends upon inertial and wireline systems, which are calibrated by the use of augmented GNSS systems.

Production. Production platforms range from single sites over a single well to massive platforms with undersea pipelines and risers connecting them to manifolds on the sea floor, which in turn are connected to multiple well heads in an area. This infrastructure is placed, maintained, and monitored with the use of SBAS systems integrated with acoustic systems. Use of remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vessels or vehicles, submarines equipped with sensors that can image and manipulate underwater structures, for these purposes is prevalent.

Station Keeping. Supply vessels, crew vessels, special-purpose vessels, and helicopters are positioned relative to the drill rig, seismic vessel, production platform, and pipeline-laying vessel by SBAS systems fused with other sensors such as lasers and microwave distance-measuring equipment. A huge drill ship, for instance, moving about in response to ocean dynamics but centered on the well head, cannot be docked to a supply vessel solely with ropes and cables. Each vessel must be free to move but to move synchronously with each other. Because of the huge masses involved, the velocity of each relative to the other must be kept as near zero as possible. Centimeter-level precision is required for this purpose. In all of the applications listed above, at various stages, vessels require station keeping with other vessels to very precise relative distances and velocities.

Containment and Recovery. When there is a requirement for a flotilla of vessels such as attended the Macondo blow-out event, there are as many as a hundred large and small vessels in a relatively small area, with the need for central control (by the U.S. Coast Gaurd in this case) and collision-avoidance systems. These systems also depend upon having precise GNSS, mostly using SBAS systems.

Further application details and additional critical applications can be provided upon request.


Jim Litton is the President of the Litton Consulting Group, Inc. (LCG).  His GPS-related experience includes being the Chief Engineer at Magnavox during the GPS phase I development, contributing to analysis of ionospheric effects and senior vice-president and general manager of the Magnavox Commercial GPS Division before forming the Litton Consulting Group in 1992. He co-founded NavCom Technology in 1994.  He holds the Hays award from the ION for 1996 and is co-inventor on a codeless GPS receiver patent.   

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