The Increasing Use of Offshore Robots by Big Oil

The need to cut costs and improve productivity kick-started big oil’s adoption of automation and robots. Beginning with the “Iron Roughneck,”i which is now commonly found on oil drill ships in deep waters, big oil has begun to employ a range of inspection robots with varying degrees of autonomy and mobility, which work in the air, at sea level and underwater.

In the not-too-distant future, completely automated all-robotic inspection, repair, and maintenance will no longer be science fiction, but reality. Onshore staff will supervise offshore robots and other equipment, raising industry safety and making the oil industry more attractive to potential recruits.

Robots are being increasingly used offshore to inspect and monitor essential infrastructure.

In The Air

Big oil now employs drones for offshore inspections as they are ideal for accessing hazardous or hard-to-reach places. They are also faster, cheaper, and less risky than sending an inspection team. Typically, drones are equipped with advanced visual and data analytics capabilities, which transmit information on the status of infrastructure and even identify maintenance needs to a land-based inspector.

A more complex use of drones is currently underway in the North Sea, where Shell has commissioned Terra Drone Europe,ii to employ its DJI M200 drone to carry out a 3D measurement of one of its offshore complexes. The task involved two stages. The first was the creation of a 3D point cloud, and the second was the accurate monitoring of the position of the platform through Global Navigation Satellite System measurements. The purpose of the 3D measurement was to identify any difficulties should a drilling rig be placed over the platform complex.

In time, drones armed with the right tools could well carry out offshore rig and platform maintenance as an every- day occurrence.


Offshore Rigs and Drill Ships

Faced with the current skills shortage, which is anticipated to become worse by Professor David Lane, Heriot-Watt University, who says “ for millennials – although it’s hard to generalize – going to work offshore in return for lots of money isn’t necessarily what they want to spend their life doing. ” Robots and automation could reduce the impact of a future recruitment crisis. Already, big oil is experimenting with a range of fixed and mobile automated robots, which are either replacing staff or helping staff to do their jobs better.

An advance on the Iron Roughneck is fixed to the floor fully electric drill-floor robot developed by a Norwegian company Canrig Robotics.iii This heavy-duty, seven-axis robot, with a load capacity of 1,500 kilograms, has a three-meter robotic arm with a newly developed gripper. This advanced robot has, where it operates, automated all pipe and tool operations including, tripping, assembly and handling of casing, tubing, liners and screens, completion components and pick-up, and lay-down of drill pipe. Compared to the combination of conventional equipment and “roughneck” labor, or even the “Iron Roughneck,” this robot is faster and more accurate and has dispensed with human labor for these tasks.

Meanwhile, a Swiss-based company, ANYbotics AG,iv has developed a mobile autonomous offshore inspection robot called ANYmal. This quadrupedal robot is designed to operate in the challenging terrain surrounding offshore sites. It is equipped with visual and thermal cameras, microphones as well as gas detection sensors, which allow it to carry out inspections of underwater infrastructure as well as generate a 3D map of its surroundings. When required, ANYmalv can be remotely operated from an onshore control center, which can receive real-time information from the robot’s onboard technical payload. ANYmal was first deployed on a North Sea platform in September 2018, performing 16 inspection points and carrying out several tasks, including reading sensory equipment and detecting leaks.

The North Sea is also home to the world’s first fully automated rig, the Oseberg All its simpler processes are fully automated by robots while monitoring and key decision-making are undertaken by human operators in an onshore control room. “Unmanned production platforms have the potential to increase revenue, improve safety, reduce costs and carbon emissions,” states Eskil Erikson, a spokesperson for Equinor, the platform’s developer.

At Sea

Autonomous vessels are the future. Swedish maritime technology provider KONGSBERG working with Automated Ships Ltd,vii is about to test an autonomous vessel in Norwegian waters on a range of tasks, including delivering supplies to offshore energy installations.viii Ultimately, it could also be employed as a remotely operated underwater vehicle support or standby ship to provide firefighting support in cooperation with manned vessels. Dr. Pierre C. Sames, Director of Group Technology & Research DNV GL, predicts that “the most likely scenario is that autonomous shipping will be an additional option for future ship operation.”



Robots for sub-sea inspection and surveys have been around for at least a couple of decades. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) dominate this segment. A more advanced and recent introduction is the battery-powered electric remotely operated vehicle (E-ROV) to support sub-sea inspection, maintenance, and repair activities.ix It operates remotely via an Ethernet connection and can run without a mother ship. All three classes of autonomous underwater inspection vehicles reduce costs, manpower requirements, and improve staff safety.

In a different category is the sub-sea swimming robot, the Eelumex, produced by Norwegian start-up Eleme AS in partnership with Kongsberg Maritime and Statoil. Its modular snake-like robot body is expected to revolutionize sub-sea inspection, maintenance, and repair tasks. Designed to live permanently underwater, Eelume connects to a docking station on the seabed. It can travel at speeds of 4-6 knots, and when operating in-and-around sub-sea infrastructure, it can twist and curve into a variety of shapes, illuminating, inspecting, and use tools.

The potential of robots and automation to increase efficiency and reduce costs has yet to be fully utilized by the oil industry. In the coming years, artificial intelligence-enabled robots will undoubtedly transform offshore operations.



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