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University of Sydney technology goes global after 20 years

2 December 2019
Robotic drill sells for around $100 million
A portable remotely operated drill used for deep sea exploration that was developed by University of Sydney researchers in the 1990s has been sold to a British offshore engineering company.

The PROD can be lowered to depths as low as 3,000 metres. Credit: Benthic Geotech

A technology that for over 20 years has been integral to mining, telecommunications and scientific surveying that was first developed by the University of Sydney recently sold for around $100 million.

The technology was the PROD, a portable remotely operated drill, and the sale was brokered by offshore engineering giant, British company Acteon who procured the technology from Australian-founded Benthic Geotech.

Although the recent sale was reported, few Australians would know of the technology’s significance in expanding the global knowledge of oceans and for progressing the field of robotics.

In the 1990s, the drill was developed as part of a collaboration between two academics from the Faculties of Engineering and Science, Professors Peter Davies and John Carter, who sought to better understand and access benthic zones - ecological regions and the sediment sub-surfaces that lie at the bottom of oceans.

Its original purpose was to search for the origins of life in depths as low as 2,000 metres, and for the first time the technology enabled researchers to access oceanic ridges and valleys; vast underground mountains and canyons ground out over millions of years by contracting tectonic plates.

It wasn’t until 1997, when the PROD was catalysed by Benthic Geotech it set the course for the technology to become a game changer. The commercialisation enabled a new understanding of the world’s oceans by allowing a deeper and more precise core sampling of sediment layers.

The outgoing chairman of Benthic Geotech, Russell Staley, said the technology was revolutionary, “There is no doubt that PROD, a University of Sydney invention, has revolutionised the deep-water site investigation marketplace, particularly in the oil and gas arena.”

“It’s taken a lot longer than we first thought but ultimately the benefits of the PROD technology has been recognised as a market leader by such mega oil majors, such as Exxon, Chevron, BP, Total, Statoil, Eni S.p.A and Australia’s Woodside,” he said.

Although the initial PROD blueprints had been developed by Professor Davies and his research team, they required capital and commercial collaboration to be conceived as a working prototype.

Professor Davies had studied geology alongside John Doran, who by 1997 had become the CEO of Australian exploration company, Roc Oil. Mr Doran helped source investment from investor, Geoff Ainsworth and venture-capital fund, Momentum Ventures.

They then partnered with the Warman International subsidiary, MD Research to build the PROD1, a partnership which included start-up investor, Gary Zamel, as well as University of Sydney technicians and geotechnical engineers, Rob Manning, James Shields, Steve Payor and Pat Kelleher who, twenty years on, are still employed by Benthic Geotech.

The PROD has been used to map previously uncharted ocean territories, such as tectonic ridges. Credit: Benthic Geotech

Previous technologies used to map seafloor geology were typically crude and cumbersome, often damaging samples or disturbing underwater habitats. According to Professor Carter early methods were akin to “lowering a string of spaghetti to the bottom of the seafloor.”

Past methods for benthic sampling were also dangerous, requiring “roughnecks” – offshore drilling rig workers – to manually assemble and lower drill strings while teetering precariously on the surface of far-flung, rough seas, a practice that for decades made work on oil rigs inherently unsafe.

The PROD pioneered early intelligent systems, using an accurate, remote-controlled robot that could be lowered to the depths of oceans without the reliance of a floating platform to remain stable. Remote access has allowed Benthic Geotech's PROD to lead the industry, becoming the safest technology of its kind.

Speaking to University News in 1997, Professors Davies and Carter predicted that the PROD would be of fundamental importance for industries working primarily in offshore petroleum, telecommunications and pipe-laying. They foresaw the PROD’s immeasurable impact on research into offshore mapping, and for understanding previously uncharted watery terrains and for tackling global climate change.

Today there are three PRODs in operation, ferried by Benthic Geotech to key underwater mining sites across the globe including Brazil, Qatar and Senegal. Last year the technology reached a record water depth of nearly 3,000 metres.

Over the past two decades the technology has also allowed geoscientists to drill into “black smokers” – deep volcanic vents that produce deposits of sulphide and are thought to be the birthplace of seemingly primordial organisms. The PROD has also allowed scientists to install permanent surveying equipment on a seafloor region off the coast of Norway.  

When proposals for the PROD’s commercialisation were presented to the University of Sydney Senate in 1997 by the-then Vice-Chancellor Professor Gavin Brown, he described it as "an excellent example of the type of alliance that the University should be seeking with industry".

22 years later, not only has the PROD’s development enabled a richer understanding of the deep sea, but the field has remained integral to the University of Sydney across multiple disciplines, particularly within the Faculty of Engineering whose School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering has maintained a focus on underwater surveying.

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