The BOTTOM of the Iceberg? Why This MUN Student is Studying Them

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An Iceberg sank the Titanic — the largest ship of its time. In late March of this year, ice took a run at Husky Energy’s SeaRose FPSO in the White Rose Oil Field, which forced them to slow production as they scrambled to assess the threat. In April of 2014, Icebergs made the Henry Goodrich and West Aquarius disconnect from their wells and move out of the way.

They’re stunning to eye from the shore, but icebergs are the brawling badgers of the sea — cross their path and you’ll regret it. With the exception of the Hibernia platform, oil rigs aren’t built to withstand a run-in with a million-ton iceberg, so there’s a whole industry built up around protecting offshore infrastructure, called “Ice Management.” It includes companies like Atlantic Towing, who tug icebergs away from rigs.

It is to the oil and ice industries that MUN PhD Student Mingxi Zhou is applying his slick mind. As we’ve all heard, the tip of the iceberg is nothin’. That’s why Zhou is studying the bottom of them. It is the bigger, un-seeable, more dangerous bottoms of icebergs that create problems for offshore operations, by damaging underwater pipelines, machines, and other infrastructure.

By mapping the bottom of bergs using an “autonomous underwater vehicle (see thetorpedo-shaped underwater robot pictured above),” Zhou can use the shape of the iceberg to craft a scientific model capable of predicting the drifting path of the iceberg. That would mean a company like Husky wouldn’t have to panic, move, and halt production unnecessarily.

Or else, Zhou’s machinery can notify offshore operators a berg is bound to pound into them, and those operators will know they need to tow the iceberg away. Tugging icebergs is no cheap or easy feat; like alligators or The Undertaker, one doesn’t wanna wrestle an iceberg if one doesn’t have to.

If you do have to tow one away, Zhou says it’s critical to know the overall shape of the iceberg. Generally speaking, the means of mapping their shapes has used sonic technology, and it entails putting bits of machinery at various points around the iceberg and firing sound at them, much like an ultrasound.

It’s a hassle, mundanely repetitive, very time-consuming, and costly. Why be at it if a 2-meter long robot can be remotely controlled to swim down and map it for you? In 2016, Zhou designed an intelligent control system for the robot and tested it off our coasts. It is a clear improvement on mapping the shape of icebergs.

It’s complicated stuff. Icebergs float and drift, so his technology has to be corrective for the motion of the iceberg. But an algorithm can be generated by his gadgetry that ultimately produces a 3D presentation that can assist an offshore operator, or tugging service, in their decision making about how to best throw down with the iceberg.

He is currently improving the technology, and hoping to improve onboard navigation and data fusion for multiple vehicles.

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Chad Pelley

Chad Pelley is an author, songwriter, and journalist who wrote for publications like the Globe & Mail and The Telegraph-Journal before founding The Overcast. Now he spends 25 hours a day keeping up with his email, and has no time to be his former self.

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