Introduction to Dynamic Positioning

1. Introduction
2. Basic principles of dynamic positioning
3. Elements of a DP system
4. Position reference systems and equipment
5. DP operations
6. DP vessel operations
7. Information for key DP personnel
8. DP operator training
9. References
10. Useful acronyms and abbreviations

1 - Introduction

Dynamic positioning (DP) is a rapidly maturing technology, having been born of necessity as a result of the increasing demands of the rapidly expanding oil and gas exploration industry in the 1960s and early 1970s. Even now, when there exist over 1,000 DP-capable vessels, the majority of them are operationally related to the exploration or exploitation of oil and gas reserves.

The demands of the offshore oil and gas industry have brought about a whole new set of requirements. Further to this, the more recent moves into deeper waters and harsh-environment locations, together with the requirement to consider more environmental-friendly methods, has brought about the great development in the area of Dynamic Positioning techniques and technology.

The first vessel to fulfil the accepted definition of DP was the "Eureka", of 1961, designed and engineered by Howard Shatto. This vessel was fitted with an analogue control system of very basic type, interfaced with a taut wire reference. Equipped with steerable thrusters fore and aft in addition to her main propulsion, this vessel was of about 450 tons displacement and length 130 feet.

By the late 1970s, DP had become a well established technique. In 1980 the number of DP capable vessels totalled about 65, while by 1985 the number had increased to about 150. Currently (2002) it stands at over 1,000 and is still expanding. It is interesting to note the diversity of vessel types and functions using DP, and the way that, during the past twenty years, this has encompassed many functions unrelated to the offshore oil and gas industries. A list of activities executed by DP vessels would include the following:

• coring
• exploration drilling (core sampling)
• production drilling
• diver support
• pipelay (rigid and flexible pipe)
• cable lay and repair
• multi-role
• accommodation or "flotel" services
• hydrographic survey
• pre- or post-operational survey
• wreck survey, salvage and removal
• dredging
• rockdumping (pipeline protection)
• subsea installation
• lifting (topsides and subsea)
• well stimulation and workover
• platform supply
• shuttle tanker offtake
• Floating production (with or without storage)
• heavy lift cargo transport
• passenger cruises
• mine countermeasures
• oceanographical research
• seabed mining

DP is also used in

• rocket launch platform positioning
• repair/maintenance support to military vessels
• ship-to-ship transfer and
• manoeuvring conventional vessels

DP systems have become more sophisticated and complicated, as well as more reliable. Computer technology has developed rapidly and some vessels have been upgraded twice with new DP control systems. Position reference systems and other peripherals are also improving and redundancy is provided on all vessels designed to conduct higher-risk operations1.

 1.1 - Station Keeping

There are other methods for vessel station keeping. These include spread and fixed moorings or combinations of each. Jack-ups fix their position by lowering legs to penetrate the sea bed. Vessels using moorings or legs may also occasionally have DP control systems to assist the setting-up on position and, in the case of a moored unit, to reduce mooring line tension. Each system has advantages and disadvantages.

Sketch 1.1 station keeping methods

DP Advantages:

• Vessel is fully self-propelled; no tugs are required at any stage of the operation
• Setting-up on location is quick and easy
• Vessel is very manoeuvrable
• Rapid response to weather changes is possible (weather vane)
• Rapid response to changes in the requirements of the operation
• Versatility within system (i.e. track-follow, ROV-follow and other specialist functions)
• Ability to work in any water depth
• Can complete short tasks more quickly, thus more economically
• Avoidance of risk of damaging seabed hardware from mooring lines and anchors
• Avoidance of cross-mooring with other vessels or fixed platforms
• Can move to new location rapidly (also avoid bad weather)

DP Disadvantages:

• High capex and opex
• Can fail to keep position due to equipment failure
• Higher day rates than comparable moored systems
• Higher fuel consumption
• Thrusters are hazards for divers and ROVs
• Can lose position in extreme weather or in shallow waters and strong tides
• Position control is active and relies on human operator (as well as equipment)
• Requires more personnel to operate and maintain equipment

From the above, it can be seen that DP will not always be the most economic solution. While vessels using moorings have a number of advantages, increasingly DP is the best option for many operations because the seabed is cluttered with pipelines and other hardware, so laying anchors has a high risk of damage to pipelines or wellheads. The option to moor to a platform rather than the seabed is also less frequent, because support vessels have become larger and platforms are not designed for the loads that can be placed in the mooring lines. Nevertheless, there is a risk that a DP vessel makes contact with a platform3.

During the 1990s there was a rapid increase in the number of vessels with dynamic positioning systems. Many of these vessels have been designed for DP and integrated control of engines and thrusters, but there are also a large number of conversions and upgrades. The situation is market-driven and relies on operational efficiency which, in turn, places a high reliability requirement on equipment, operators and vessel managers.