There is a story – probably apocryphal – that one of the early Roman emperors was approached by an inventor who had created a steam-powered device for moving huge marble columns around, an invention of obvious interest to the monument-building Romans. The emperor rewarded the man for his innovation, but declined to purchase the device for the empire, stating that he had a city full of workmen who needed to eat, and the invention would put them all out of work. In the modern era, most of us recognize that the addition of powered machinery doesn’t permanently take jobs away from workers; rather, it changes the nature of their work, usually for the better. Today’s construction machine operators make a lot more money and work a lot more safely than did the burly gangs of workmen in Roman times.
In many ways, we’re smarter than our Roman forerunners. Today we are a lot more likely to see opportunity in new technology, not threats. Commercial divers sometimes worry about ROVs undercutting them on price for some kinds of jobs, but the opportunities for new business provided by ROVs are a much larger vein of possible work. ROVs represent an affordable way for divers to expand their businesses by increasing the human diver’s capabilities while simultaneously cutting costs and improving safety. ROVs are not going to replace human divers – instead, they are going to add to those divers’ ability to work productively underwater.
Diving is difficult and often dangerous work. It’s uncommon for a client to need a diver to conduct a brief excursion in crystal-clear waters in order to do some trivial task. Rather, divers are asked to handle hard jobs in unpleasant and sometimes unsafe conditions. Many times, a job can’t be done because there’s no way to do it safely. ROVs can change that, because an ROV worth a few thousand dollars can be risked in many situations where a human life would be at too much risk. That ability to run additional risks with only hardware on the line can actually improve the ability of a dive team to take on a job, because the ROV can scout the work and establish whether or not it actually is a human-achievable job.
Many diving jobs involve a great deal of reconnaissance and scouting in order to do an hour’s worth of actual work. For example, in a salvage operation, a diver may spend days looking around a site and finding the items that are worth retrieving, then do the actual salvage work in an afternoon. However, all of that scouting time is just as expensive, just as dangerous, and just as exhausting as the actual paying work at the end. An ROV doesn’t require a trained commercial diver for its operation; the diver can hire support personnel (who work a lot cheaper) to do the scout work with a controlled ROV, then go into the water herself later on when the job is narrowed down. Same payday, but a lot less cost upfront – plus the diver can work more actual jobs.
Some jobs which require a human diver can actually be done under a diver’s direction but without the diver having to go into the water, or at least not having to go in as much. For example, hull inspections or damage surveys often involve putting eyes on the target, but don’t require any hands-on work. A diver reviewing an ROVs video feed can do just as good a job as if they had been in the water the entire time – but again, with much lower costs and no risk. Remember, risk costs money – in insurance premiums, in medical expenses, in training costs – and reducing risk is effectively the same as putting money back in your pocket.
Even hands-on work like underwater repair can be made more efficient and less stressful with intelligent use of ROVs. ROVs can be used to survey the worksite and get good information into the dive planner’s hands before anyone puts a foot in the water. And while the divers are actually working in the water, other staff can use ROVs to keep eyes on other areas of the work site, or to fetch tools and parts without a lengthy surfacing process. We profit and grow when we see the potentials unlocked by technological change.
Divers who adapt to the technological innovation coming to the industry by adopting the new tools that ROV technology is making available are going to be able to do more work, to do it better, and to do it safer than they were doing it before. Adding ROVs to an existing dive business requires challenging some ideas about how the business should run, but it’s a change that will pay off.