University research lightens underwater dangers


An illuminated ‘umbilical’ aimed at keeping divers safe has been developed by scientists at the University of St Andrews and PhotoSynergy Ltd, and trialed in the North Sea. This unique fibre lighting concept has recently been awarded the prestigious Innovation for Safety Award by ‘the voice of the UK subsea industry’, Subsea UK. The recognition by industry leaders represents a significant milestone in the concept’s development.

Don Walker, Director of PhotoSynergy Ltd, and his colleagues have been working in conjunction with a number of major contractors operating in the North Sea to trial the important new concept. He was at the Subsea UK presentation to receive the award, as pictured above.

The LIGHTPATH device – powered by an LED – is described as a real step forward in ensuring the safety of deep sea divers working in challenging underwater environments.
The device has also attracted the interest of marine archaeologists and salvage divers, who could use it to guide and plan their escape routes into sunken vessels and wrecks.

Developed by the University’s spinout company PhotoSynergy Limited, ‘LIGHTPATH’ is based on earlier research from the School of Physics and Astronomy. The LED powered fibre rope carries only light no electricity creating a continuous ‘line of light’ only 5 mm in diameter some 75 m long. The LIGHTPATH concept is patented.

PhotoSynergy recognised the if the LIGHTPATH was incorporated into a diver's umbilical it would improve knowledge of a diver’s location, and help prevent snagging of the umbilical on subsea structures, which is a significant industry problem. By using different colours of light, it will be possible for individual divers to be identified by both other divers and ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles), making operations more efficient. The device is pictured in action alongside, where the umbilical is seen as the dotted green line caused by the LIGHTPATH fibre being wound around the umbilical, and the diver's helmet and light being just about visible at the foot of the photo. The photo is courtesy of the Underwater Centre.

Professor Malcolm Dunn, Chairman of PhotoSynergy Ltd, commented that “It is immensely satisfying to all concerned that such an important and practical safety device, with global impact, has resulted from research work carried out within the University”.

Don Walker said, “Our concept will significantly contribute to the safety of divers and those operating around them in the challenging subsea environment. The feedback from divers and ROV pilots had been overwhelmingly positive and we really appreciate the vision and on-going support from Boskalis Subsea, Bibby Offshore and Helix ESG, who have supported the diving trials. Initial testing and evaluation has been undertaken at The Underwater Centre in Fort William and the LIGHTPATH concept has received significant professional industry exposure at their Open Days”.

Nigel Kenrick, Bibby Offshore Diving & Dive Systems Operations Manager commented,
“On the Bibby Offshore DSVs we use different colours for each diver so there is no confusion when the divers are working close together in poor light conditions. The main benefit is that the divers can readily identify where their umbilicals are at any time, preventing potential problems with unseen snagging hazards. The ROV can also quickly check the divers’ umbilcals are completely clear before landing large items on the seabed. The divers themselves started requesting umbilical lighting quickly following the early offshore trials. This, in itself, speaks volumes.”