Canadian sustainable forestry specialist, Chris Godsall, invented the world’s first logging submarine to salvage logs that were felled to make way for the construction of hydroelectric dams.
Godsall had estimated that at least 200 million trees worth some US$50bil await harvest with the potential construction of more than 45,000 large dams worldwide.
He introduced a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) called Sawfish, a chainsaw-wielding cutting machine with a robotic claw and a dive capability of at least 1,000 feet to fetch waterlogged trees.
As the ROV allows its operator to remain in a comfortable spot while the ROV works in hazardous environments, ROVs have been known to be of service in search- and-rescue operations, oceanography, documentary film making, and more popularly used in oil and gas industries (O&G).
Locally, Subsea Explore Services (M) Sdn Bhd has built a niche by being the only local manufacturer of underwater ROVs.
Co-founder and managing director Hazali Mansor started the company, which provides services to Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas), overseeing the subsea projects.
Subsea is generally used to refer to the equipment, technologies and methods deployed in marine biology, undersea geology, offshore oil and gas developments, underwater mining and offshore wind power industries.
During their early days in 2005 with a RM100,000 capital, Hazali said a blueprint was created to move the company towards becoming an ROV manufacturer.
“Right from the start, our plan is to produce cost-effective Malaysian ROV and services with international standard,” he said.
The ROV project, code-named ‘SSV 1’, started in December 2007 involved design works in their first manufacturing plant in a 2,000 sq ft light industrial unit, that was surrounded by workshops, in Glenmarie, Shah Alam.
The company, in sustaining its research and development efforts, had also invested about RM3mil in two small observatory ROVs to diversify their revenue stream.
These ROVs were used for technical training and also inspection, repair and maintenance services to other international ROV operators.
Some of its earlier contracts included carrying out ROV piloting and technical training to the Fire and Rescue Department, the navy and Nippon Oil Exploration (M) Ltd for their integrated platform inspection works.
“It involves complexity in integrating engineering applications, signal processing and communication technology with the ROV as well as with the umbilical, control van and other accessories,” Hazali said.
An ROV consists of an underwater robot (vehicle) which is connected to the control van and the operators (or ROV pilots) on the surface by an umbilical cable. It weighs from 55 to 60 tonnes for the whole spread of equipment and requires a loader trailer to transport them to the mobilisation site.
The umbilical cable carries the power, command and control signals to the vehicle and the status and sensory data back to the operators’ topside.
“ROV can vary in size from small vehicles with TVs for simple observation up to complex work systems, which can have several dexterous manipulators (or robotic hands), TVs, video cameras, sensors, tools and other equipment,” he said.
Development cost would take about RM9mil to RM10mil apiece and they have manufactured four ROVs to date.
Funding such complex projects is challenging and Hazali said financial institutions find it difficult to build a case for it as ROV is fairly a new term and they could not ascertain the profitability of his project.
Not only that, after the ‘SSV 1’ was successfully tested at West Wharf, Kuantan Port Consortium, Kemaman, Terengganu in 2009, they were unable to penetrate the domestic market due to long- established international players, such as Oceaneering International (USA), Subsea 7 (Norway), TMT (Australia), Caldive (USA), Racal (UK), Sonsub (Italy) and others in Malaysia.
“We then got a contract in 2009 for the Caspian Sea Rig Support project for an Iranian oil and gas firm whereby SSV 1 managed to dive up to the 1,000-metre water mark,” Hazali said.
This had gotten Petronas’ attention and the company was awarded a long-term contract for ROV pipeline survey and inspection projects in 2012.
Currently, they are executing an underwater inspection and maintenance project awarded by ExxonMobil Exploration and Production Malaysia Inc (ExxonMobil Malaysia).
Starting with 17 staff comprising electrical and mechanical engineers, Hazali said they had since expanded to 60 employees who are experts in offshore operation, marine engineering, integrative mechatronic and underwater engineering as well of ROV pilots.
“All activities done underwater is expensive, and we have no room for trial and error, hence high competency of our staff is required,” he said.
The company is currently operating in a 11,000 sq ft light industrial factory in SME Bank Factory Complex in Sunway Damansara
He added that Subsea had since increased its paid-up capital to RM4mil.
Having recorded RM63mil revenue in 2013, he said they are targeting to achieve RM80 to RM90mil in revenue for 2014 with ongoing projects with other oil compnaies. They are also planning to develop another 15 ROVs in the next five years and has plans to go for listing in the next three years.