The oil and gas industry has been looking toward robotics and automation to improve operational efficiency and safety but still lags behind other sectors in implementation.

According to Rebecca Allison, manager for the Oil and Gas Technology Centre (OGTC) Innovation Hub’s Asset Integrity Solution Centre in Aberdeen, Scotland, the application of robotics in offshore oil and gas is almost limitless, but as an industry we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. “Companies could reimagine their business processes and transform productivity,” she said. “But this will only be possible if we understand the challenges and collaborate on the potential solutions.”

Allison spoke to E&P companies shortly after they ran a successful Robotics Week in late November. At the event a team of experts from the oil and gas and robotics industries took part in a two-day workshop to identify use cases and technology gaps for the application of air-, land- and sea-based robotics in the offshore energy industry.

The event shed light on development areas and issues to be addressed, Allison said, adding the oil and gas industry can learn from other industries that use robotics in their operations. But she pointed out that it will not be a “straightforward ‘plug-and-play’ situation,” considering the specific needs of the offshore oil and gas industry.

Utilizing robotics offshore demands a collaborative approach and identifying solutions suitable for the U.K. North Sea’s wide spectrum of installations, she said, adding this also includes regulatory and safety bodies to address standards and certifications.

“The robotics revolution will not happen in one year, but it may be quicker than many think,” Allison said. “It will have implications for jobs and skills, and it’s important we design and develop the right solutions and plan for a smooth introduction.” 

Benefits Of Robotics

ROVs have been around for decades, and the industry is seeing development in the use of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). “The use of drones for visual inspection is now commonplace in the industry, and we’re working to deliver a step change in the capability and functionality of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs),” said Luca Corradi, innovation network director at the OGTC. “But the reality is that oil and gas is playing catchup with other industries.

“In many sectors, we’re seeing a significant increase in the use of robots and autonomous systems working with people to improve productivity and efficiency,” Corradi added. “In manufacturing, for example, they are on the next generation of robotics, incorporating artificial intelligence and human-robotic interaction.”

The range of opportunities for adopting robotic or autonomous technologies is seemingly endless, and the benefits are vast. Robotics and automation could transform how the sector operates offshore and significantly enhance safety, reduce costs and improve productivity. Robotics could be used to assist with, or completely adopt, tasks that are dull, dirty and dangerous for humans. For example, process pressure vessels have traditionally been inspected by shutting down operations and sending a person into the vessel. This results in lost production and people entering a confined space and hazardous environment.

“We’re trialling and investing in robotics systems for non-intrusive inspection that allows the internal vessel condition to be assessed while the vessel is online and with no man entry,” Corradi said. “Furthermore, any technique that allows the vessel’s internal and external, when hidden by insulation materials or Passive Fire Protection (PFP) materials, condition to be assessed without breaking containment and while online would have a transformational impact upon current industry practices.”

The event highlighted several challenges the sector could face in its attempts to reap the rewards of increased robot deployment.  Chief among these was power and communication along with ATEX compliance.

Increasing the reliability and functionality of drones for inspecting assets, without having to take two people offshore for the job, was another challenge raised. “In the future, drones could be controlled onshore or be totally autonomous, navigating their own flight path for inspections,” Corradi explained.

For maximum efficiency, subsea inspection and intervention jobs should not require an ROV tethered to an expensive vessel with operations dependent on weather conditions.

“Technology could be developed where docking stations are located on the seabed and AUVs live there and navigate regularly to carry out inspections,” Corradi said. “In industries such as manufacturing and nuclear, robots are just parts of how a producing asset functions day-to-day. In the U.K. North Sea, we have 200-plus installations and, as far as we know, no robots ‘live’ there and are an integral part of operations.

“So how can we bring robots on the topside to bring inspection, maintenance, reach areas that are hard to reach and combine with sensors for inspection?,” Corradi asked. “There’s a whole world where we can automate and improve the quality, reliability and predictability of inspection.”

Opportunity Knocks

Robotics has been a hot topic in 2017. “The U.K. has the opportunity and potential to be one of the leading countries in the world in the development of robotics,” Allison said. “We have a great research base, which is backed with strong investment, and we’re likely to see new companies taking this technology to lots of different markets, including oil and gas, renewables and more.

“Robotics will also have an impact on jobs. This doesn’t mean robots replacing offshore workers, but the sector skills base could shift from ‘doing the task’ to ‘finding the task,’ co-operating with robots in execution and remotely monitoring their performance,” she said.

In June the OGTC launched a ‘Call for Ideas’ inviting innovative technology concepts and ideas on how robotics could be used to enhance the quality and lower the cost of pressure vessel and tank inspections. The call has a fund of about £1 million (U$1.3 million) to invest and 29 ideas were submitted. The ideas are going through a rigorous review process. A decision on which ideas will receive investment is expected early next year. The workshop identified a range of use cases for air, land and sea applications. In the air, fully autonomous drones that can plan and navigate their own flight path were proposed. On land small, highly agile robots that can autonomously, climb, navigate and perform inspections, with little or no human intervention and support, were proposed. Under the sea, a pipeline intervention gadget that is autonomous, adaptable, reliable, multi-functional and capable of working in harsh environments was proposed.

“The robotics technologies available today don’t enable these use cases yet,” Allison said. “So the center’s Asset Integrity Solution Centre is reviewing the output of the technology gap analysis to identify potential themes for a future ‘Call for Ideas’ and future projects for co-funding and support with industry partners.

In addition, the analysis will inform research programs for the recently announced Edinburg Centre for Robotics-led ORCA Hub, which aims to advance robotics and artificial intelligence technologies for the inspection, repair, maintenance and certification of offshore energy platforms and assets, she said.