The saturation unit is pressurized to almost the same depth level at which the divers will be working subsea. Inspecting company assets at such depths for long periods of time means that saturation divers need to stay in the water longer and deeper than conventional commercial divers.
Regular commercial divers will work for around 20 to 90 minutes in shallower water depths up to 50 meters, then take around 40 minutes to resurface due to the necessary decompression stops along the way. If divers resurface too quickly they can suffer decompression sickness, which is the result of having breathed gas that is at a higher pressure than the surface pressure. This happens when divers remain subsea for long periods at greater depth, without ascending gradually and making the decompression stops needed to slowly reduce the excess pressure of inert gases dissolved in the body.
In the saturation unit Al Omoud and other divers will breathe a mixture of gases, including oxygen and helium. Once the body is saturated it means the diver can be deployed from the saturation unit into the water, and more importantly, he can come straight back without the need for decompression stops. Saturation divers are, therefore, able to work at greater depths for longer periods of time.
“One of the biggest advantages of having a vessel like the Mermaid Asiana and its saturation divers is that they can be dispatched at a moment’s notice to deep depths — we don’t have to worry about the divers being saturated or getting decompressed on their return,” notes superintendent of Marine Offshore Operations, Turki M. Shihri.
“This means we save time and money, but more importantly, it means we are always ready to deal with any situation.”
Al Omoud will be saturated in the same chamber where he sleeps and rests. To get to the seafloor, he will exit his pressure chamber through an airlock and enter a diving bell. The diving bell is then lowered to the seabed, or required working depth, and Al Omoud is released to work.
Once finished, Al Omoud, or any other saturation diver, will re-enter the bell, which is then hoisted back to the vessel. All the time, his world does not go beyond the subsea area and the saturation chamber.
Saturation diving is all about depth and time. However, even operating in shallow waters can throw up the most challenging of scenarios. But even in this instance, UIRU was to prove, that through ingenuity and technology, no challenge is unsurpassable.
A shallow problem
Connected to an umbilical cord, a diver submerges to begin a shallow water inspection of a Saudi Aramco asset.
The umbilical cord resembles a thick yellow rope, and serves as the conduit for a supply of diving gases. It also contains reinforced wires allowing radio communication with the diver, as well as providing light to the diver and a camera feed back to the surface dive panel.
The cord is connected to a shallow water inspection vessel. However, it must operate carefully, a host of potential problems await — not least the risk of impact with the sea bed or underwater obstacles in the shallow waters. It’s risky business.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and the UIRU turned to the company’s Research and Development Center’s Intelligent Systems Lab for assistance. How could they inspect assets in shallow waters and avoid the potential hazards to the support vessels?
Seven engineers based within the Oil and Gas Network Integrity Division were assigned to work with three members of the Marine Department, and in less than two years they successfully developed the Shallow Water Inspection and Monitoring Robot (SWIM-R).
The device is able to conduct visual inspections, marine life cleaning, ultrasonic thickness readings, and cathodic protection voltage measurements in shallow waters. Divers can now operate the vehicle remotely from onboard the dive vessels.
“This was a great leap,” notes URIU head Khaldoun I. Bukhari. “It is a very effective way to carry out our operations in shallow waters and is a great example of collaboration between different departments.”
One of the operators of SWIM-R is 28-year-old Shadi S. Negaimshi. He serves as a trainee diving supervisor, and also operates the technology from above the surface in a diving support vessel.
“This was a breakthrough technology that was developed specifically for our operations,” he notes. “Obviously it gives me great pride to be part of its deployment — it shows that the company is always looking at innovative ways to tackle operational challenges.” Negaimshi is no stranger to serving the interests of the Kingdom — in fact he’s quite a pro. It was in 2008, when the eyes of the world were on Beijing, that he first stepped forward and represented Saudi Arabia at the Olympics as a freestyle swimmer.