Interview by: Jiwon Hwang
Nick Harper is the Director of Killick AUV Operations Ltd., an AUV operations company undertaking unexploded ordnance (UXO) and chemical weapon searches for The Hague in the Baltic Sea, in addition to a variety of other operations. He discusses how he got into the field, what he likes about his job, and advice for young people looking to get into the field.
JH: Could you tell us about your biography briefly?
NH: I started my military career in the early 90’s as a civilian flying instructor at 633 Volunteer Gliding School at Royal Air Force (RAF) Cosford in the UK, teaching basic principles of flight to young cadets on the Grob Vigilant Tmk1. In 2000, I transferred to the Royal Navy and enlisted as a Mine Warfare Specialist, where I was instructed in all things to do with underwater mines and mine clearance. I enjoyed numerous drafts on the Hunt class Minesweeper such as HMS Ledbury, HMS Quorn, HMS Hurworth, HMS Chiddingfold and HMS Cattistock.
During some shore time, I was selected to be the first Royal Navy rating to undertake an AUV course on the Remus 100 and 600. From that course, I was one of the founding members of the Royal Navy’s first AUV team. After eight years on the team and after many successful pioneering missions I left the team and the RN and became a civilian, assisting UTEC Survey set up their AUV operations using the Gavia AUV. After three years, I set up my own AUV operations company undertaking oil and gas work — pipeline survey etc., and unexploded ordnance (UXO) and chemical weapon searches for The Hague in the Baltic Sea.
More recently I assist defense companies conducting multi-unmanned system demonstrations for military applications. I’m very passionate about all things AUV and unmanned and still get excited at what the next mission or job might find with its sensor payload.
JH: What does an actual AUV operator do and what are they responsible for when doing a job?
NH: An operator is a broad term that groups together a huge scope of skills to safely launch and recover the vehicle. A sound background in rigging and seamanship is essential because it requires a dynamic and quick thinking when it goes wrong. The ability is to have a good up to date surface picture so that you can deconflict with surface vessels and too many incidents which can happen such as the operator can lose track of surface tracks and a collision occurs between AUV and surface vessel. Also they are responsible for accurate mission planning. It is essential to gather good data, so investigating tidal ranges and harbour movements is just a small part of good mission planning.
JH: As an AUV operator what do you like most about your job?
NH: The marine life that I encounter when operating out of a small RHIB (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat). In Mozambique I was part of a team conducting a pre-lay survey for a pipeline. Everything is a typical frontier-like scenery, like tropical islands and seeing Humpback whales, barracudas, turtles and dolphins everyday. It’s a very special experience!
JH: What are some of the biggest challenges you face when deploying AUVs?
NH: Operating with Vessel Masters that have no grasp of the international language of the sea — English. When trying to explain exactly what you would like a vessel to do when launching and recovering can sometimes be exasperating, especially if they are not good at piloting the boat.
JH: What types of AUV do you currently use or have you used in the past?
NH: Remus 100, Remus 600, GAvia, Iver 3, SaaB Sabertooth, Hugin, Munin and Alister A9.
JH: How long does it usually take to deploy the AUVs on a mission, from programing mission to getting in the water?
NH: When I was in the Royal Navy we used Remus 100 and 600. The Vehicle Interface was very operator friendly, so you could program missions and be in the water within a very short space of time — 30 mins max for a 6-9 hr mission. Civilian operations dictate a little longer. Sometimes you will have the missions programmed months in advance before even mobilizing the vessel.
JH: From a user perspective what features do you like the most on the AUVs you have worked with?
A: The ability to navigate accurately using Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) and a HiPaP hull mounted system is essential nowadays. Also a good multibeam like the Blueview that Gavia have just released is a fantastic tool to use too. With that there is no need to gap-fill your missions as Blueview does this for you!
JH: What features could use improvement on the AUV’s you have worked with?
NH: Battery life. Some of the bigger ones like Hugin have 48-72hrs mission time but the smaller ones like Remus and Gavia could do with longer endurance. Riptide are working on new battery tech that is interesting.
JH: What features would you like to see on AUV’s whether mechanical or software based?
A: User-friendly interface is a good start. Not all operators are surveyors so having a user interface that is Quincy-based [coding language] limits the user.
JH: Do you feel that AUVs are an important tool for doing maritime research or inspections?
NH: Absolutely! These underwater drones can reach where man cannot — yet! Also, they take the man out of the minefield when dealing with marine ordnance and UXO work. The work that Liquid Robotics are conducting with their wave gliders is very cool in that they stay out for months and gather valuable data on climate and conditions at sea.
JH: Any words of advice for students looking to get into the field?
A: It’s good to be multi-skilled in the offshore survey world. Do not just stick to AUV jobs but open yourselves up to the more traditional way of gathering data, that way you will appreciate the AUV way of doing things more!
It is good to have a marine science background or other similar degree however engage the practical side of things like Seamanship. It can literally save a couple of million dollars worth of AUV if you have the skills!