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Inspection: From Seabed to Desktop Via Digital Video

Posted on 27.07.2009 - 08:22 EDT in INSPECTION NEWS (Topside) by ginamc

Article By Elly Tillema-Heyting, NAM, and Richard Mapleston, Shell

How an innovative use of technology has brought the seabed to the Shell engineers’ desktops, enabling them to upload video clips from offshore within hours of identifying critical subsea defects.

COABIS NetworkWhen a piece of technology wears out, sometimes it is simply a matter of buying a replacement. But new technology also offers new opportunities. This is what happened when Shell and NAM (Shell/ ExxonMobil joint venture in The Netherlands) realized that analog VHS was no longer a supportable option for recording subsea structure and pipeline video on tape. This article describes the challenge and how a new service based on industry standards solved the technical problem and brought about new ways of working.

Out with the old

Analogue video made movies a cheap, readily available commodity. But as any home user knows, this format is now obsolete. Moreover, compared with DVD, the medium is cumbersome to use. First find a player and a TV, get your audience in one place, then fast-forward to the interesting footage. In the offshore industry, that footage is usually a failure, known as an anomaly. Much of a full-inspection offshore video is very rarely viewed, as people normally want to see only anomalies, usually just a few minutes’ worth. However, Shell is required to provide assurance of long-term integrity of underwater assets and provide references for verification and legislative authorities as part of their assurance process around our license to operate.

In the analogue days, it was a cumbersome process to review old footage: one had to submit a request to information services for delivery of the archive box containing a tape or go directly to the tape store.

In with the new

With the industry moving to digital, change was essential. Faced with a need to replace the now obsolete medium, Shell began a search for a replacement technical solution. Also required were a new storage medium and a new process to manage the lifecycle from underwater capture through to filing and storage. This required a means of managing the metadata to ensure that the videos can be retrieved rapidly and unambiguously.

Technical goals

NAM had four goals to meet:

1. Move to an acceptable digital format.

2. Make the videos accessible online independently of the originating technical platform.

3. Eliminate commercial exposure by reliance on a contractor application/ hosting.

4. Use industry-standard solutions so no special facilities are needed when contracting inspection vessels.

Viewing solution

The design goal was to store the newly captured videos on servers on Shell’s network, accessed via a play list (think iPOD) in LiveLink, then streamed to the desktop presented to a viewer in the end-user’s desktop browser. There were two choices for a file format for digital video. The film industry’s format is MPEG, of which there are various versions, and Microsoft’s format (.wmv) is From seabed to desktop via digital video used in the GID media player.

The solution chosen was to adopt MPEG2. As the industry solution, this format has sufficient resolution to meet business needs. It could also be streamed fast enough to be acceptable for the company’s main locations in Aberdeen, Assen, and Kristiansund. If you’ve watched video online before, you will recognize the problem. But how to solve the viewer problem? We had to turn to a Shell IT team to find a codec (conversion application). The end result was the selection of the Elecard codec, which was relatively inexpensive and solved the problem.


Digital video needs a lot of storage capacity, and it has to be accessed rapidly to be available online. But with the volumes concerned, it would be expensive. From Shell’s seismic department, which also deals with large files, we learned about the existence of hierarchical storage management (HSM), a data storage technique that automatically moves data between high-cost and low-cost storage media by monitoring the way data are used and then makes best guesses as to which data can safely be moved to slower devices and which data should stay on the fast devices.

NAM’s solution was to put the high-usage clips from the current and previous year, as well as all the anomalies, onto a high-volume Netapps server and use HSM for data older than two years. With a short wait of just a few minutes, HSM can begin streaming the files quickly onto the network. Of course, this posed its own implementation issues (Unix/Windows interfaces, security and seamless license-free access). But the answers were a Samba server software, a change in the security set-up, and improvements in caching to allow effective streaming. Now Shell has installed 5.5 Terabytes of online storage, sufficient for two years of data and 10 Terabytes of HSM nearline.

Putting it all together

The schematic in Figure 1 illustrates how video is captured by the diving/ ROV contractor’s divers or ROV cameras and processed by the offshore inspection team as it is recorded—adding their voiceovers— and reviewed. The data are then delivered on a secure medium to be uploaded onto Shell’s network by the Aberdeen computer operations staff using a specially designed Windows tool, Robocopy. Following upload, the video and playlist files that arrive from offshore are quality-assured (QA) for integrity. When QA is complete, a special toolset, the EPE Digital Upload tool, kicks in. It reads the files, adds the metadata, and loads the play lists into LiveLink.

Viewing online

Once the videos are online, they can be found and viewed by several routes. Shell’s Underwater Operations and Maintenance team prefers to use the COABIS Browser, a Windows Explorer Intranet access portal to the COABIS database. An interface between LiveLink and COABIS allows the correct file to be retrieved, which an engineer can then view at his PC using Media Player. Of course, once it is online, the file can be viewed anywhere and any time by anyone within Shell. Furthermore, files can be viewed simultaneously across the network using Shell desktop collaboration tools Communicator or Netmeeting. The tyranny of the single tape and VHS player is now over. By virtue of being stored in LiveLink and correctly indexed, the files can also be retrieved directly by means of a search using Shell’s advanced autonomy search tool.

Fast-tracking anomalies

Of course, while assurance is necessary, it is vital to locate, report, and fix problems as soon as they are found. Moreover, Shell is obliged to report any failure with 24 hours of it being found. And it is key that any problem be correctly assessed, the fault diagnosed, and appropriate action taken. This can’t always be done best offshore. If the videos can be seen onshore, then all of Shell’s Aberdeen-based subsea maintenance team expertise can be brought to bear. Whether the problem is in the UK, The Netherlands, or Norway, Shell’s new tools now allow that. Having found an anomaly, the offshore maintenance team can take a shortcut and use the new offshore high-speed bandwidth to transfer the information from the platform on which they are operating. This is appropriate for the smaller volumes of data involved. The video can be uploaded into LiveLink, processed, and rapidly viewed by the onshore engineering experts, all within three hours.

Benefits all around

This successful development now provides access to 55,000 videos on line, viewable in less than a minute from the desktop. The videos are from across Europe and include nearly 2,500 anomalies. All of this information can be viewed through a standard PC with just a simple request to install the required codec converter. From an IM/IT perspective, the project has delivered a fit-for purpose solution, solved the obsolescence problem, eliminated offsite storage and costs, and greatly improved data integrity through the backup capabilities of Shell’s data center services. The technology choices were all built on standards and existing infrastructure and provide a secure platform for the future.

For the future, the drive is to switch to real-time transmission of video from offshore to onshore.

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