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The importance of subsea cable records management

Tuesday 26th January 2021

Accurate and up-to-date data can help minimise project downtime and associated cost

Having access to accurately mapped submarine cable routes has become essential following the increase in seabed usage from industries such as telecoms, renewable energy, oil & gas and resource mining.

Records management is the systematic control of the creation, maintenance, use, reproduction, and disposition of records.

Accurate and up-to-date data can help minimise project downtime and associated cost of our customers. The risks of miss-managed data can critically impact the planning and installation of a new cable route or maintenance of an existing cable system

Vast quantities of data are collected every day – but whose responsibility is it to keep it updated?

Throughout each stage of the planning, installation and operation of a submarine cable, project data is created and collected. This data remains in a state of flux, with several changes over the project’s lifecycle which must be continually captured. However, managing records is often overlooked. It is either low on the list of priorities or wrongly assumed that someone else, such as a member of the maintenance consortium, is doing it.

In reality, it is the responsibility of the cable owner to maintain records for their cable system. This extends to its location, straight line diagrams, cable armour type, fibre maps, burial depth etc. Not just for the installation but for changes that result from repairs on the system or from new cables and pipelines that are laid across an existing system.

Often these are not properly checked by the wider industry, which can lead to errors creeping into the data, creating unnecessary risk for the future. OceanIQ’s unrivalled team of experts not only organise records for our customers, they update and manage them too, helping our customers ensure their data is as accurate as it possibly can be.

If cables and pipelines are not accurately charted, it can result in costly mistakes. Vessels can be loaded with incorrect cable types for a repair, grapnels can cut through or damage uncharted cables, recovery of the wrong cable could take place, damage may be caused to uncharted repair bights or even cause harm to pipelines.

Our knowledgeable team verify and update individual records with new cable or pipeline crossings, repair details or other relevant marine operations – taking the burden away from our clients and minimising the risk of errors negatively impacting repair or installation projects later.

CS Recorder

The requirements for subsea fibre optic cables is ever-increasing as we become more connected 24/7

There are currently already 2,600,000km of subsea telecoms cable in commission. In total, the subsea fibre optic cables span hundreds of thousands of miles, across almost all the world’s largest oceans. And they are incredibly fast. For instance, the Marea cable, which reaches from northern Spain to the eastern United States, transmits 160 terabits of data per second. This demonstrates quite clearly how powerful these cables are and how vital they have become to global communication.

As of 2020, there are approximately 406 in-service submarine cables installed around the world. With over 1.2 million kilometres of in-service cable installed and even more planned, the seabed is quickly becoming saturated particularly in the choke point areas. This leads to the traditional three-times water depth of separation between cables not being feasible. Knowing exactly where your cable is and keeping the records up to date is vitally important.

Almost 66% of the world’s population is expected to have access to the internet by 2023 with three-times as many internet-enabled devices in operation than the human population. Demands for increased bandwidth to accommodate this growth trend will require investment in new high-capacity submarine cables with a focus on how to safely install and provide ongoing maintenance for them.

To continue to meet the seemingly insatiable appetite for connectivity globally, the subsea cable infrastructure needs to grow, flex, and remain secure to deliver a consistent supply around the clock. 

However, retired (inactive) cables remain on the seabed, which need to be considered when conducting repairs or installing new cables. Most fibre optic cables are engineered with a design life of around 25 years. Cables may remain operational for longer than this, however as technology improves and new cable capacity increases this may become economically unviable leaving more just sitting on the seabed as obstacles to future developments. 

Subsea power cables are just as critical to the world’s infrastructure

As we rely on undersea cables to ensure our internet connections, we do the same for power. The energy that heats our homes, keeps the lights on and powers the modems that keep the internet flowing into our lives is transported from its original sources and between countries through a series of cables that connect offshore power generators – such as oil and gas rigs and, more recently, renewable sources such as wind farms – to the National Grid. As an island, the UK is more dependent than most on these cables being properly maintained, especially in times of crisis.

Currently, there are 4,000 MW of operational connectors linking the UK with its closest neighbours – the Republic of Ireland, France, and the Netherlands – and this is set to increase in the next few years. In fact, the North Sea Link, an ambitious project that will be the longest subsea power interconnector, is already well underway. There is an estimated 20,000km of new power cables to be installed in northern European waters alone by 2030. These trans-national interconnectors allow countries to trade and transfer power, ensuring a steady supply, managing fluctuations, and stabilizing prices for consumers. It is vital that they are well maintained and quickly repaired should a fault occur.

For example, the typical revenue loss of a single 6MW turbine being offline for a day is 10,000 GBP, which is not something that wind farm operators can stand to lose regularly. The latest turbines are scaling up to capacity of 14MW, which can have a substantial effect to an offshore wind farm project in the event of a cable fault or failure. The loss of revenue per turbine per day would total over 23,000 GBP. If a string of turbines was down, this figure would quickly escalate into millions of pounds of revenue lost. With nearly 20,000km of power cables estimated to be installed in northern European waters by the end of the decade, the number of repairs is naturally going to increase. The reasons behind cable faults can help us prepare and implement preventative measures for the future.

The Coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns have emphasised our reliance on these unseen networks, with some European countries seeing data usage surge by nearly 50%, as more and more people rely on the internet to work, relax, and communicate with others.

Global Symphony at Kincardine Offshore Wind Farm

But what happens if a system isn’t properly engineered, or we aren’t prepared if an unexpected fault occurs?

OceanIQ’s fault database shows an average of 190 annual faults on fibre optic cables over the last five years, this is rising approximately 10 percent per year, and in 2017, an unprecedented 217 faults were recorded.

74% of all faults are caused by third-party activity such as fishing, anchoring, dredging or other human intervention and a further 12% are caused by natural occurrences such as sediment and or mudslides (turbidity flows as a result of seismic activity) and ocean currents causing cable chafing. The final 14% are system and/or equipment faults.

Continental shelf areas are the most hazardous to cable security. 83% of all faults occur in water depths of less than 1,000m. In these water depths, 93% of non-system faults are caused by third-party aggression with natural activity accounting for only 7%.

Data from Lloyd Warwick and Codan suggests that 82.3% of insurance claims in offshore wind are as a result of cable faults or damage. The cost of these failures to date has amounted to £227 million, and statistically we expect to require one repair for every 413km of array cable installed. As wind farms move further from shore and into deeper water, the risks are going to increase – so being prepared throughout the project lifecycle to avoid this costly statistic is key.

Data miss-management – examples of real-life challenges

Without the proper measures and understanding in place before cables are installed or repaired, there are a huge number of theoretical risks at play as outlined earlier in the article. But theory and potential risk do, in some cases, translate into real-life as the below examples demonstrate. These examples are all anonymous, but real events, that have unfortunately happened due to missing information, incomplete communication or a lack of expert consultation.

Example 1 – Unmarked crossing

  • An existing cable system had no updates carried out on the RPL
  • A new in-service cable was laid over the top of it
  • A recovery operation on the original system was to take place
  • The newer system was mistakenly cut as the cable ship was relying on the RPL for crossing information and was therefore unaware of the newer system

The result: Costly repairs to the in-service system and delayed operations to the original cable. Simply updating the RPL with new crossing would have prevented this issue.

Example 2 – Abandoned cable

  • Cable system A required to be repaired
  • The repair was in an area of previous repairs that had left a large section of abandoned cable on the seabed which was not identified in any of the records
  • The abandoned cable was recovered in error and brought to the surface, tested and found to be faulty in both directions, with multiple faults assumed
  • Eventually, it was recognised that it was not part of the in-service system, however, a vast amount of time had already been wasted with unnecessary testing and vessel time, accruing associated costs

The result: Unnecessary testing resulted in long delays to the repair operation, which could have been avoided by ensuring that the section of out of service cable from previous repairs was charted and marked on the records.

Example 3 – Uncharted Repair Bright

  • An existing cable system was repaired and a bight introduced to the route
  • The RPL was updated but not issued to relevant marine authorities and other seabed users
  • The new system (unaware of repair bight) was installed and broke the existing cable during plough operations
  • Repaid costs fell to the responsibility of the existing cable owner, as other seabed users were unaware of the bight location

This problem could have been avoided by ensuring the correct procedures were in place for informing other seabed users. This situation has also occurred when the bight position has not been added correctly to the RPL. 

Example 4 – Wrong position in the RPL

  • A fault was reported on cable in the vicinity of a gas pipeline. The pipeline crossing position was added to the RPL, however the crossing was incorrectly checked against other sources.
  • When the cable ship arrived to grapnel over area of repair, the incorrect pipeline positions were provided to the vessel
  • The vessel eventually managed to locate the cable using an ROV
  • The ROV found the actual pipeline 2km from the RPL position, exactly where the vessel was due to grapnel
  • Luckily, using the ROV avoided a serious incident

This example could have led to a very serious incident with huge financial and environmental implications.  The ship had planned to grapnel immediately, luckily the decision was taken to investigate using the ROV. This is when the serious discrepancy in position was found.

The above examples highlight a few of the problems caused by lack of proper records management.

In another incident, a hydrocarbon well was being drilled when the drill head wrapped around an out of service cable. Three miles of cable was found to be wrapped around the drill shaft, causing severe project delays. Fortunately, the system was out of service, so there was no loss of downtime, however, this could just as easily happen to an in-service cable system.

OceanIQ’s database of subsea cable faults is an invaluable resource containing information on over 5,500 historical cable faults, approximately 95% of all faults worldwide; a powerful resource for planning future cable systems and avoiding past mistakes.

The solution focuses on storing and managing accurate cable data

Keeping your data organised in one place is key to ensuring system and project accuracy. OceanIQ has over 25 years of records management experience. Our world-leading team of experts has a combined experience of over 60 years of managing cable records across multiple subsea industries. Our SEA Data Platform is a highly intuitive cloud-based platform that provides the highest level of security and peace of mind.

When preparing new cable routes or planning marine operations, project preparation is paramount to success, this is highlighted by the real-life examples detailed earlier.  SEA Data Platform can help avoid planning pitfalls, preventable costs and mistakes, and ensure the long-term safety of a new cable system by fully understanding risks, the subsea and landing site environments, licencing requirements and likely challenges all before the project begins.

OceanIQ’s database of subsea cable faults is an invaluable resource containing information on over 5,500 historical cable faults, approximately 95% of all faults worldwide, which is a powerful resource for planning future cable systems and avoiding mistakes of the past.

Using anonymised fault data to characterise the risk environment for new cables based on actual faults on existing and out of service cables in a region, we provide confidence that all possible steps have been taken to mitigate those risks.

Furthermore, to support with planning future cable projects, and maintain existing systems, we have an unrivalled GIS database of all in service and out of service cable systems.

We work closely with customers to create bespoke packages to store, manage and enhance your data with added consultation services to safeguard it for unexpected requirements long into the future.

Whether your entire data library is online or offline, stored in multiple places or has an unorganised structure, our expert team will organise it, store it centrally on our secure SEA Data Platform, and manage it for you, so you can easily find what you need anytime you need it.

The OceanIQ team welcomes any enquiries you may have on how we can help you maximise your data to save you time, increase productivity, and minimise your data stress.

With a wealth of subsea data at our fingertips, we deliver industry-leading subsea cable data, route engineering, permitting and consultancy services for telecom and power cable route planning projects, as well as ongoing support to maximise the life and efficiency of live systems across the globe.

As part of GMG, we have always been at the forefront of subsea innovation – from planning, laying and maintaining cables for the power and telecoms industries, to using our extensive knowledge and data to consult on projects and create world-class solutions in emerging markets.

In 2020, we launched a new business unit built around our wealth of cable data and first-hand knowledge and experience of cable installation and maintenance: this became OceanIQ.

We have detailed knowledge of 97% of all fibre optic cables laid worldwide, and 70% of power cables, enabling us to deliver accurate assessments for any subsea project across a range of industries. Along with our sister companies, we have prepared for, installed and maintained cables for decades; we know the ocean floor better than virtually anyone else.

Get in touch with the OceanIQ team