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Deep Water Presents a Challenge for Hydraulic Systems

Global demand is not easing up when it comes to farming vital resources that are found in subsea environments. In fact, industries have now begun to expand their efforts and are putting more energy and effort into devising machines that are capable of delivering what is required.

With over 60% of the surface of the earth covered by water, it’s no secret that there are many resources that are awaiting exploration and development. This new frontier has a number of industries involved including oil and gas, natural science, mining, energy generation and infrastructure.

Hydraulic systems are incredibly useful to remote operated vehicles that are used underwater. They offer high power density and a reliability not found in other systems. It’s possible to use hydraulics in such a way that the vehicle is very compact and therefore it can be deployed and recovered easier.

Highly technical and complex systems need to be serviced and maintained by subsea remote operated vehicles. For example, equipment needs to be lowered and lifted to the seabed, emplaced systems need to be monitored, such as communication cables and petroleum wellheads.

Although some subsea hydraulic equipment is designed specifically for the task, in some cases, the equipment has been manufactured to a quality that can handle the high pressures and the corrosive conditions of the depths of the sea anyway and needs just a little customisation to perform at a reliable level. A major factor that is considered is the depth of the water and how that could impact the hydraulic system.

Here are other considerations that go into developing hydraulic systems for subsea operations:

Machines that operate at 1000ft below sea level are required to operate in salt water, but the water-pressure is not significantly high. Another factor that has to be catered for is that sunlight can reach up to 800ft into the water and could promote the growth of sea life over the surface of the equipment such as the cylinders and the rods.

Beyond 1000ft to as deep as 6,000ft, pressure becomes a major factor. Increasingly 14.5psi for every 10m of depth, it will be as high as 7250psi at 5000m. It’s at these depths that work is performed by subsea robots such as AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles) and ROVs (remote operated vehicles).

Subsea vehicles aren’t typically in use for long periods of time. They will be used to accomplish tasks in electromechanically and electrohydraulic subsystems. Although they can operate beyond 100m of depth they typically won’t be submerged for long periods of time. However, they need to be ready when required and any downtime must be kept to a minimum.

Special design features may be required for components exposed to water pressures this high. For example, structural modifications may be required or pressure compensation.

These depths would normally be found a long way from shore, therefore would be operated by either ships, platforms or floating platforms. Water that is from 6000ft to 35,800ft is rarely entered unless it’s by subsea vehicles from the military or research. The conditions are so extreme, that every piece of equipment, including hoisting and tethering will need to be engineered to handle the weight and dimensions of systems at this water depth. In addition the size of the waves are larger, as are the forces brought on by maritime currents.

Ambient hydrostatic pressure is exposed to the hydraulic fluid using a pressure compensation system, with a flexible seal to prevent hydraulic fluid and seawater from making contact.

The benefits of hydraulic drives are brought into their own in these types of machines. Not only are they powerful and compact, rugged but precise, they are able to deliver power and be flexible for a wide range of tasks.

Engineers continue to work on how they can make the best of what hydraulic systems offer when it comes to subsea conditions.


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