Controlling a Subsea ROV Drill With LabVIEW and CompactRIO

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"By choosing CompactRIO for drill control and sensor integration, we were able to produce an ROV that is compact and mobile, whilst powerful enough to drill 60 metres below the seabed."

- Martin Griffiths, Metis Automation

The Challenge:
Developing a flexible subsea drilling device to explore and survey hard-to-reach offshore construction locations for the oil and gas industry.

The Solution:
Using LabVIEW software and CompactRIO hardware to meet the requirements of this demanding application. NI Alliance Partner Metis Automation helped to develop the LabVIEW application because of the company’s experience with advanced user interfaces and expertise with CompactRIO devices.

Martin Griffiths - Metis Automation

Controlling a Subsea ROV Drill With LabVIEW and CompactRIO 

Metis Automation specialises in embedded software solutions and automated test systems. We applied our knowledge of fast and reliable software systems to a challenge presented by Canyon Offshore to develop an innovative new product for the offshore industry.

Traditional drill ships are an expensive option when drilling in deep water sites due to the time it takes for the drilling tool to reach the seabed. Some operations require this scale. In others, such as sampling, testing, and geotechnical investigations, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV)-based drilling system can be much more cost effective due to time savings, as the ROVDrill can reach the sea bed much quicker for drilling operations. Additionally, users of the ROVDrill unit can collect geotechnical data at deeper water locations and in close proximity of seabed structures, which traditional drill ships cannot do.

The data is collected for construction of oil and gas fields. When oil has already been discovered, the geotechnical data collected helps in the engineering design of the structures that are planned for installation on the seafloor.


Figure 1. ROVDrill Onboard a Small Dynamic Positioning Vessel

The fundamental difference between a drill ship and the ROVDrill is that a drill ship has drilling tools that reach the sea floor directly from the vessel on the surface. An ROVDrill system is a small submersible that can carry out drilling operations. We can lower it directly to the sea floor from the back of a much smaller ship at a far lower operational cost due to time savings at deep drill sites.

Canyon Offshore has experience in the design and development of ROVs and specialises in bringing their inherent benefits of flexibility and portability to drilling and sampling. Perry Slingsby originally developed the ROV. Canyon Offshore and Cellula Robotics then upgraded it from a drilling tool to a geotechnical drilling tool. Metis Automation further optimised the control software.

Older implementations of this type of drilling system in the industry are very manual in use. An operator must be trained extensively on what the system can and cannot do. Due to the large forces involved, improper operation could cause the rig to damage itself. This necessitates significant manual valve control rather than focusing on the high-level drilling task at hand. Ultimately, this results in long completion time for operations and a risk of human error. Canyon Offshore wanted to create a platform that offered consistent repeatable drilling operations. To achieve this, automation is key.

The ROVDrill consists of two main components—the subsea drill system and the topside control station on board the vessel:

Subsea Drill

The submersible component of the drill consists of a drill head at the front, surrounded by a tool rack with locations for up to 50 drill tools. A robotic arm is used when ROVDrill is subsea to locate drill tools from their rack positions and move them to the drill head. A CompactRIO device controls all of this critical equipment and performs data acquisition from all drill sensors. By choosing CompactRIO for drill control and sensor integration, we could produce a compact, mobile ROV powerful enough to drill 60 metres below the seabed.

At each subsea site, geological conditions are often not fixed during exploratory sampling. The flexibility of the drill means the scope of the drilling operations can be changed based on the efficient geotechnical data acquisition by the ROVDrill.


Figure 2. Topside Control Station

An ROV pilot sits at a control station on the deck of the ship with control joysticks, buttons, and touch screen monitors to control and view drilling progress for the duration of operations.

The goal is to give the drillers a high level of control over the drill to adapt to changing subsea conditions so they can complete drilling operations. Drillers receive information to control all of the complex drilling processes. We designed the control system to be as familiar to existing ROV operators as possible, while the advanced automation features that Metis Automation developed into ROVDrill enable longer, more reliable drilling operations.

Figure 3. A ROV Pilot at the Controls

Bringing the System Together

The topside and subsea components must work together seamlessly. To achieve the level of automation required to make the system successful, Cellula Robotics specified and installed a CompactRIO embedded device from NI in the subsea structure. This connects over Ethernet through an umbilical to the control cabin on deck. The topside PC runs another LabVIEW software application that communicates constantly with the subsea system.

Figure 4. Overview of ROVDrill System Setup

This configuration is ideal because we can segment the functionality of the system to have all of the safety critical systems and tight control loops running on the CompactRIO embedded system subsea, ensuring fast reaction to changing conditions. This means the asset can effectively look after itself and it does not have to wait for the operator to send a command.

The high-performance and intuitive user interface runs from the PC topside. This is essential to system operation but not critical to safety. The goal for the user interface was that if subsea visibility is so poor that you cannot see the operation of the system, the data and functionality that the control system provides can empower the operator to safely use the system blind.

In the age of the Internet of Things, this application is a great example of what the deployment of highly-connected smart devices can achieve. We reached a high level of automation by deploying a high-performance embedded system subsea. The system contains many presaved tool configurations. Between operations, one can load in the appropriate configuration for whatever conditions the ROVDrill is operating in. This significantly cuts down the time it takes for the driller to set up the system, which significantly changes the speed and consistency of drilling operations. It also ensures that no mistakes are made that could endanger the asset

An extra benefit of using the CompactRIO platform for the subsea component became apparent while operating the system in the Pacific Ocean. A reported water ingress into one of the noncritical interlock sensors caused the system to shutdown. In this situation, Canyon Offshore faced costly and time intensive operation of pulling the drill out for repair, which would have taken up to 12 hours to complete. However due to the capability to remotely access the system from onshore, Metis Automation were able to remotely develop revised firmware for the system and deploy it to the embedded system subsea, meaning that the drilling operation could continue safely and without significant delay.

Now, a client who monitors the operation of the system may come up with a new application. If the drill does not currently support it, the client can add extra functionality as a real-time software update while at sea.


Canyon Offshore used CompactRIO and LabVIEW to create a flexible device so their clients can survey remote locations and quickly collect data to help in the engineering design of subsea structures for oil and gas fields.

Author Information:
Martin Griffiths
Metis Automation
Pioneer House, North Road
Ellesemere Port CH65 1AD
United Kingdom

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