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What is driving demand for seabed site-characterisation services?


Arctic waters are too hostile and remote an environment for generating offshore wind energy. However, there is a widespread need for modern site characterisation and survey services to update maritime charts for these latitudes, some of which are still based on surveys dating from the 1950s.

Ironically, in June 2016, the Champion Ebony chemical tanker ran aground on an uncharted shoal in the Etolin Strait, Alaska, just weeks before National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) surveying operations were scheduled to start in the area. On this occasion, no spill occurred and the vessel was moved offshore, but the potential for environmental disaster and loss of life in poorly surveyed waters is clear.

In common with the Etolin Strait, which is at the southern edge of the ice pack’s annual range, much of the Arctic experiences high levels of maritime traffic during the summer. Given the limited ice-free season, the remoteness of the area and the often-inclement weather, it is important to maximise the area surveyed each day, something that is being aided by the use of autonomous survey vessels.


The Acteon group has, in UTEC, a well-established geophysical and geotechnical survey capability around the world. UTEC’s five offices in Asia and the Middle East deliver wide-ranging integrated geophysical and geotechnical surveys; in the USA it focuses on construction support.

In line with Acteon’s strategy to expand its specialised subsea services, the group has recently extended its existing site characterisation capabilities in Alaska and Asia Pacific through the acquisition of TerraSond and Benthic, which have offices across the USA and in Australia and Singapore. In November 2019, it opened a geotechnical laboratory in Brazil.

TerraSond, operating from its base in Palmer, Alaska, performed the 2016 NOAA hydrographic survey of the Etolin Strait. In an industry first, 44% of all the Etolin Strait survey data were collected using an autonomous survey vessel, thereby saving almost 25 days compared with traditional methods and enabling the project to be completed during the most favourable part of the summer season.


Describing his company’s activities in Alaska, TerraSond president Thomas Newman notes the advances that have been made in survey techniques. “In 2016, we had a conventional survey vessel and an autonomous survey vessel simultaneously acquiring adjacent survey lines. Back then, this was an innovative approach. Today it is the norm; 60% of the survey line length acquired for NOAA in 2019 was collected using unmanned survey vessels, which has resulted in significant improvements in data quality, efficiency and safety.”

The site characterisation capabilities of TerraSond and Benthic complement existing Acteon group offerings from UTEC. In addition, Seatronics can support the three companies through the rental of geophysical and geotechnical surveying equipment from its industry-leading inventory. Each company has established a strong reputation with its clients. TerraSond has recently won its seventh consecutive contract with NOAA and is about to complete its seventh offshore wind farm site investigation contract; Benthic has delivered three quarters of all the deepwater seabed characterisation drilling projects completed worldwide in the past three years; and UTEC’s fleet of seven autonomous underwater vehicles supports global surveying operations.

Together, Acteon’s operating companies are now able to handle larger site characterisation contracts with a greater global reach. When answering a customer’s challenges means combining these companies’ services, the Acteon field life service team can create bespoke solutions and deliver them through a single point of contact to simplify the interfaces between Acteon and its customer. “By combining the existing services of UTEC, Benthic and TerraSond, Acteon can now provide a complete scope of geophysical and geotechnical surveying services,” notes Paul Smith, UTEC’s Group Managing Director.

Comprehensive site characterisation capabilities also support Acteon’s marine infrastructure design and constructability offerings. “Integration by the Acteon field life service team has the potential to create cost-effective solutions for our customers that overcome many of their biggest challenges. By creating seamless interfaces throughout the life of a project, Acteon solutions can contribute to commercially, technically and operationally de-risking a wide range of seabed activities,” concludes Paul Smith.