Robotic innovations

Eduardo Costa explains why the oil and gas industry is home to some of the most exciting innovations in robotics right now

Robots have been part of our collective imagination as humans for centuries, and part of our lives for a few decades now, but we tend to overlook just how big a part they currently play in our everyday lives. Perhaps this is because they have yet to play a major role in our homes, or perhaps we should blame science fiction for setting our expectations too high, but whichever way you look at it, robots in 2020 are proving to be both remarkably sophisticated and surprisingly commonplace.

Amazon currently has over 200,000 robots zipping around warehouses in the USA, and barely a day goes by when we don’t see further evidence that they will soon be visiting our front doors with deliveries, and sweeping us from to A to B without a steering wheel in sight. Behind the scenes a similar revolution is taking place in manufacturing, logistics, medicine and agriculture, and their ubiquity in almost every part of our lives is only set to grow.

There is one industry however that is, above most others, interested in building versatile and highly autonomous robots that can go where no man has gone before, saving precious human lives in the process. I’m not talking about space exploration, although the Space X tests and Mars Rover expedition have succeeded in turning heads over the past few years, just as Sputnik 1 did back in 1957. No, I’m talking about the oil and gas industry, which shares many of the same environmental challenges, and many of the same demands, such as capturing data with high degree of integrity and efficiency, and manipulating the built environment to repair faults or provide routine maintenance.

Efficiency, productivity, and safety are three of the top priorities for any oil and gas company. In a world where a single fault can cause devastating economic and socio-environmental damage, the inspection and monitoring of oil and gas assets has become vital, especially in extreme environments. This is where inspection robotics come into their own. In the past ten years, inspection robotic solutions have evolved at a staggering pace, and are now relied upon to overcome an increasing number of challenges. They are rapidly becoming the de facto option for minimising human risk, mitigating human error, and improving economic efficiency. 

Innovation gaining speed

Advancements in the field of inspection robotics have been gathering pace across the globe since before the turn of the century, but the past decade has witnessed unprecedented growth. Experimental innovations continue to disrupt traditional procedures, but we are now seeing a much wider array of technologies being routinely deployed wherever they present cheaper and safer solutions to common (and uncommon) challenges.

We’re increasingly seeing long-established oil and gas companies merge their efforts with new technology-focused enterprises, many of which are experimental start-ups. This has led to a fantastic level of collaboration across borders and sectors whereby shared expertise is allowing new technologies to enter the marketplace and flourish.

At the meeting point of a range of different technologies, including AI, machine learning, IIoT and sensors, robots are now being designed to either support, enhance or occasionally replace humans at almost every stage of the supply chain, through upstream (E&P), midstream and downstream. This is never more visible than in the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are now a permanent presence at a wide variety of sights around across the industry.

Robotics for accuracy

We’ve seen yet more innovation in the development of Industry 4.0 tools in recent years, such as digital prototyping and additive manufacturing, which have made it possible to create components that were previously impossible to manufacture. Autonomous decision making also now ensures inspections are performed under the best conditions, allowing for more precise data acquisition, while sophisticated algorithms predict and detect anomalies in monitoring and inspection data. Whether the environment be aerial, terrestrial, or submarine, there are robotic systems acting in inspection and monitoring, that intervene directly in operations as well as in situations that would otherwise generate risks for both people and assets. 

Robotics in action

Equinor, Shell, BP and ExxonMobil have all invested heavily in robotic systems to function in offshore environments and increasingly severe scenarios, such as the exploration of the Arctic, the Brazilian pre-salt, the Gulf of Mexico and the west coast of Africa, right through to production, inspection and analysis. 

Each country with a vested interest in oil and gas production has its own approach to incubating new field technologies, and robotics is no exception. For example, in Brazil, where oil companies currently represent almost 60% of all industrial investments in the country, the Brazilian national regulatory agency has made it mandatory for companies that operate in fields with large production volume to invest at least 1% of their gross revenue into research and development. In fact, the National Agency of Oil, Gas, and Biofuels (ANP) estimates that BRL148 billion (GBP £22 billion) will be invested in new exploration and production facilities over the next five years, creating up to 474,000 additional jobs.

In the hands of an innovation-oriented oil industry, measures such as this offer Brazil a competitive advantage on the global stage. For example, these conditions have stimulated the development of new technologies through partnerships that bring together oil companies, universities, and technology-based companies such as Ouro Negro, to create robotic solutions that makes oil and gas exploration safer and more reliable.

Since the 1980s, Brazil’s pre-salt layer (such as the Campos Basin in Brazil) has proved to be an ideal testing ground for a wide array of new technologies that have gone on to influence mining and refining processes around the world. This includes floating production storage and offloading units (FPSO’s) for the storage of oil; improvements to tests of long duration (TLDs); and advanced subsea systems for exploration in large depths. These developments also apply to the use of robotics in the offshore realm, where continuous investments are being made to consolidate the concept of a digital oil field both in exploration and production.

The next frontier

As the technology continues to evolve, so too does the demand for autonomous robotic solutions. We stand at the edge of a global revolution in robotics technology, and the extreme demands of the oil and gas sector ultimately mean that in many fields, we are leading that revolution. 

However, it is only through global collaboration and communication that the most effective advances can be made. The Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (Apex-Brasil) has been working hard to build these bridges to ensure that borders are no barrier to the sharing of information and technology currently emerging in Brazil.

In the not-so-distant future, we can expect more autonomous robots performing inspections across the energy sector. In the oil industry for example, robotics will feature in the very first drilling stages, in pipeline networks both on and offshore and in UPGNs (natural gas processing plants). Looking ahead to the renewable space, we’ll see thermal, hydroelectric and nuclear power plants as well as refineries, wind and solar parks also be home to a variety of autonomous robotics.

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly this revolution is now gathering pace, and how ubiquitous some of these technologies will be in just a matter of year. The era of earth exploration may be far behind us, but it’s experiencing a renaissance through the eyes of our robots, and we’re only just getting started.

Eduardo Costa is CEO of Ouro Negro

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