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Innovation and Disruption, Keys to Enhanced Subsea Surveying

Kevin McBarron - Sulmara Subsea


Peter Appleby By Peter Appleby | Journalist and Industry Analyst - Mon, 10/19/2020 - 09:50

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Q: Sulmara Subsea was only established in 2019. What fueled its drive into the Mexican market?

A: Each member of Sulmara Subsea’s management team has over 20 years’ experience in the oil and gas industry. Prior to founding the company, we all worked for other peer survey groups internationally, supplying surveying services in the offshore construction support segment. Our specialization is the pre-installation and installation phase of field development in oil and gas and in renewables for offshore wind farms.

During the downturn in 2014, we saw a commoditization of surveying services because there was such a downward pressure on cost. Cost became all important. Surveying is disproportionately important in offshore services but it is a relatively low-cost service in comparison to the other costs involved in the development of a field. But the risks associated with incorrect surveying are massive. A pipeline or platform in the wrong place is a costly error. There has always been space for innovation and disruption in surveying but the last downturn removed that. Innovation became a cost and effort that could not be afforded and surveying became supremely cost-driven. This meant that companies employed lower-cost surveying and received lower-quality results. Efficiency fell with this.

It got to a point where the company’s co-founders and I believed that this situation had become a significant problem for operators and additional cost and risk was actually being added to projects. We believed there was space for innovation and technology-driven surveying services again. This is why Sulmara Subsea’s rationale is based on being innovative and disruptive. We look at each job with the intention of finding the smartest way to apply technology or variation to established methods to understand how best we can deliver to the client.

As a startup business, we needed a client that bought into our vision and understood what we were trying to do, while also being willing to back us with work. We also needed a busy market. Drebbel de Mexico was key to this and we shared a similar vision. Drebbel had previously found its space in the Mexican market through being inventive in finding smarter ways to support pipeline installation. There was a good fit between the companies. The hardest thing to create in the industry is trust and without previous projects, there is nothing on which to base a relationship. With Drebbel, we made that connection from the start.

We have established offices in Houston and Merida and have incorporated in Mexico City. It is important that we make a firm commitment to Mexico and hire Sulmara personnel in Mexico so there is no disconnect between ourselves and the client.


Q: How has Sulmara’s experience with Drebbel set the ground for success in Mexico?

A: Working with Drebbel, which is supporting PEMEX and Tier 1 contracts such as Permaducto and Arendal, was perfect for us to establish a track record in Mexico. PEMEX has very high expectations for the work that service companies provide. They expect extremely high-quality deliverables and for work to be completed quickly. We carried out difficult surveying and trenching of pipelines using a large team and advanced subsea instrumentation to deliver pipeline installation support. Our projects supporting PEMEX projects were at the highest end of what surveying does offshore. PEMEX is demanding in the quality they ask for and that experience has given us the track record to qualify for other IOC’s and contractors in Mexico and around the world.   


Q: Is the downturn the perfect time to apply more efficient advanced technology in the surveying sector?

A: Time will tell but we are convinced this is the case. Drebbel and the Mexican market has bought into the idea of high-quality surveying. Whether the international market has bought into it is a different question. Some companies automatically revert to that lowest-cost base mentality. That effectively removes us from working with those businesses, not because we do not want to but because they may not have the appetite for innovation. We will find clients where there is an appetite.

We are using advanced technologies with Drebbel. We have the Sabretooth Hovering AUV mobilized in Mexico. This is a system that has never been used in Mexico. But this system was not chosen for the sake of using new technology, it was chosen because traditional ROV’s work at 1 nautical mile per hour, whereas the Sabretooth can pick the same survey data up at 2-3 knots. The efficiency is therefore much higher. Introducing new technologies comes with some risks, but with Drebbel we have the understanding that with some risk also come added benefits. Everyone is onboard with this approach and willing to resolve problems that arise on the project.


Q: What sets Sulmara apart in Mexico?

A: The real differentiator is the quality of our personnel. Sulmara made a huge effort to pull in the very best talent. We headhunted the top talent and this has paid dividends. In fact, we are top-heavy on talent, but this was intentional so that we can bring graduates onboard and have them learn from the senior individuals in the offshore teams.

This top talent is vital because, while it is great to use advanced technology, a company will not be around for long without results. The quality of the people equates to the quality of the product. We were the first company to introduce an ASV – autonomous survey vehicle – to Mexico in 2019. We had two of our local Mexican surveyors working with the system carrying out surveying work at 6 knots rather than 1 knot. This was a huge win for us.


Q: Where does Mexico sit within the hierarchy of the markets Sulmara Subsea is already in?

A: De-risking the business is important to us. We did this through geographies, an assortment of locations where we can work, and by sectors. We are pushing hard into the renewable offshore wind sector. This helps the company deal with the peaks and troughs of the industry. We have offices in Scotland, Mexico, the US, Canada and Singapore and have recently established an office in Guyana. We are close to completing the office setup in Mozambique. We are also looking at Boston, Taiwan and Kuala Lumpur in the next six to 12 months. We are moving quickly, but the management team has the international experience that gives us the ability to move in international markets quickly.

But Mexico remains the most important market for us. In 2020, it will deliver 60 percent to 70 percent of our total revenue. This will stay at 30 to 40 percent in 2021. We see Mexico as a stable market due to the oil and gas expansion the government has committed to. There are few markets that are investing in infrastructure in the same way that it is happening in Mexico. There has been pullback in international markets, which is where our renewables focus has become stronger. There is huge investment going into renewables in some regions, including Europe, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam, while it is also increasing in the US. Though COVID-19 will impact Mexico, we expect to see a dip in work but not a collapse.

Trenching is used for pipelines in oil and gas, and cables for renewables. The trenching for both types of industries are carried out by the same vessels, same ROVs and the same trenching machine. This means we can easily adapt our projects to either industry. The skillsets of our personnel are fully transferable.


Q: What are the company’s next steps to expand into the Mexican market?

A: We have four local surveyors and are forging links with Mexican universities to bring graduates in and increase our personnel. At the moment, we are using a mix of locals and ex-pats as trenching surveying has traditionally been done by international companies bringing in the talent. We intend to increase homegrown talent in Mexico so we can have trained personnel here and the international staff can move to other markets. We are working with Drebbel and PEMEX and also speaking to other clients in the market. We are looking to widen our client base in the next 12 to 18 months.


Sulmara Subsea is a specialized subsea surveying company formed in 2019. It operates with a philosophy of innovation and the use of new technology. The company was the first to use an autonomous survey vehicle in Mexico.

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