Hibbard Inshore, the Michigan based deep tunnel and underwater specialist is first to order the new Saab Seaeye Sabertooth hybrid long-range AUV/ROV.
Although ideal for hard to access subsea tasks, the Sabertooth hybrid has found its first role high in the Rocky Mountains.
Hibbard was quick to spot the benefit of a powerful vehicle that can swim 40 km down a tunnel at speed and cope with the kind of turbulent conditions that normally make life too unstable for primary inspection sensors.
It means that for the first time a complete shutdown of water flow during tunnel inspection is no longer necessary.
Director Jim Hibbard was keen to pioneer the vehicle after seeing how the breakthrough product could benefit long tunnel projects around the world.
"Our confidence in trialling the product came because Saab Seaeye are people we can trust."
Knowing the Sabertooth has evolved from Saab's proven defence AUV into a vehicle suited to the commercial market using ROV technology proven in that sector, Jim Hibbard is sure of its capabilities.
"No one is reinventing the wheel," he says.
He also sees savings in operating costs coming from the Sabertooth's smaller overall package with its thinner fibre-optic cabling option, when compared to an ROV system.
"Only one helicopter flight up a mountain is needed now, rather than two for an ROV system - and we can use smaller transport vehicles to reach the helicopter landing site."
When proving the concept, Hibbard Inshore inspected for rock and debris, a 15km tunnel that supplies a hydro plant and where shutdown was not possible without loss of revenue for the customer. Previously such inspections had to be performed in a zero flow of water.
Planning to work in different places from tunnels to mines and waterways, where difficult water quality can be expected, Hibbard has their Sabertooth fitted with a range of equipment including collision avoidance sonar, a navigation system, three cameras, lighting and imaging sonar.
Jim Hibbard also says: "It has the power to fit what you want, yet is electrically quiet."
He is also impressed by the fibre optic cable feed control system that automatically manages tension as the cable feeds and returns, without the need for pilot intervention.
It is such key technological advances that make it possible for the Sabertooth to go places and undertake tasks where ROV deployment is difficult or impossible.
By combining the technologies of both AUV and ROV vehicles into a single unified resource Saab Seaeye has created a vehicle with the range and manoeuvrability of an AUV, yet with the tooling capability of a light-work ROV.
A choice of three operational modes is possible: autonomous roaming; attached fibre-optic cable; or umbilical carrying power and communications.
With its excursion range of 40 km and depth rated option to 3000 metres, it can embark on either long range programmable missions, or under operator control around set targets, with obstacle avoidance and precise manoeuvrability for safe and easy access, including swimming around and working inside complex structures.
And where operating space is tight, the Sabertooth's 360 degree manoeuvrability means it can orientate itself into any position – even directly up, or down – from where it can attend to its light work or inspection task.
And in places where access is seasonally restricted, it can remain underwater for a year at an isolated location, in resident mode, at its docking station, ready to be deployed on task as needed, under the remote guidance of an operator.
At the docking station tooling packs can be stored ready for use; batteries re-charged, data and video downloaded and fresh instructions uploaded.
Saab Seaeye see the hybrid AUV/ROV concept as offering an important new technological resource to a range of industries and applications across the world with Sabertooth being the first of a new class of deep water, long-range, hovering hybrid vehicles.