The robotized field operator
Trends suggest there will be new solutions to build on existing infrastructure and to develop new oil and gas fields
By Trond Michael Andersen, Charlotte Skourup, and John Pretlove
The aim, in almost all industries, is to have a high level of automation to increase productivity and efficiency.
Industrial robots, which have been one important technology enabler in achieving this aim, perform repetitive, heavy, dirty, and dangerous tasks.
Within the oil and gas industry, robots have worked in very specific niche applications where the main driver has been safety, but this trend is now changing.
Oil and gas companies have started to explore broader applications where robots may also have a positive impact on productivity and efficiency. One such application is the remote operation of oil and gas fields, particularly those in hazardous environments.
Camera mounted on robots
An orange robot moves around the process site, performs a combination of routine inspections, and replaces a safety valve. This robot works along side two others.
A human operator located hundreds of miles away in the process control center supervises all three. The human supervisor has defined and initiated the maintenance tasks in response to a condition-based monitoring report generated by the automation system. With overall responsibility for safety, the operator instructs the automation system to reschedule the subtasks.
Using the 3-D camera mounted on one of the robots, the operator inspects the machinery and identifies further components that require removal and replacement.
Although this scene is set sometime in the future, it is not far from reality. Some aspects of it are already happening in space and deep beneath the oceans, where humans cannot easily perform tasks. The scenario shows how robotics technology could take a step further and move into oil and gas facilities to improve health, safety, and the environment (HSE) and increase productivity.
Trends in oil and gas
The oil and gas industry is facing a number of challenges that require novel technical solutions and business models. The world’s energy consumption is growing, and although alternative energy sources are currently expanding, there remains a high demand for oil and gas.
However, recovering oil and gas from existing reservoirs and new fields has become more challenging with reduced profit margins. Industry has exploited many of the more accessible oil and gas fields, leaving the more remote and technically challenging reserves for future exploration.
Furthermore, experienced crew are fast approaching retirement age, which means that fewer experienced workers will be available to extract these reserves. Based on the expectation of continuous market growth, the trend will be for stronger cuts in costs and increased energy efficiency.
These trends suggest there will be increased investments in new solutions and business models to build on the existing infrastructure and also to develop new oil and gas fields. To successfully meet these goals, the oil and gas industry is prepared to change working practices and adapt their infrastructure.
Industry recognizes collaboration as an essential element to achieve the efficient and safe operation of their industrial processes. In many cases, the collaboration takes place over a distance, for example, between the control room and a remotely located expert or field operator.
Integrated Operations (IO) (eField, iField, SmartField, and others) is a broad philosophy that aims to tackle the overriding challenges faced by the industry. The IO idea attempts to achieve goals through a combination of new methods focusing on the latest developments in technology and work processes.
Robotics for oil and gas
The use of robots in the oil and gas industry has been limited. The industry has generally only automated processes that are difficult or impossible for people to perform, or that would dramatically improve HSE issues.
Examples of such applications are found in subsea facilities and pipeline inspections, in the automation of drilling operations, well tractors, and in special inspection applications.
Very often, the industry has experienced a negative impact on productivity with automation, running counter to the general goal of automation. This trend, however, is now changing. Today, the oil and gas business sees robotic technology as an enabler to increase efficiency, productivity, and improve HSE issues.
The oil and gas extraction processes are generally dangerous and risky. Offshore facilities operate in rough seas and all kinds of weather conditions. In addition, hazardous environments are encountered, for example those with high concentrations of dangerous gases, such as hydrogen sulphide (H2S).
The use of robots in such environments has the potential to reduce human exposure to hazards. They are designed and manufactured to operate reliably 24/7 and can be designed to cope flexibly with a range of operations.
With greater demands for energy and the increasing difficulty experienced by the industry to extract oil and gas economically, it is clear the oil and gas industry will have to change its strategy and think afresh, especially if it is to successfully extract tail-end production from existing sites and exploit the smaller, more marginal oil and gas fields of the future.
There are two broad areas in which robots can serve in oil and gas—those applications that demand completely new robot designs and those in which existing industrial robots can work. The further development of subsea oil and gas production relies heavily on remotely operated vehicles. These are for exploration, inspection, and interaction with the process structures. Such applications are unique to the oil and gas industry and require completely new robot designs.
Other applications show clear similarities to manufacturing processes, where robots already carry out repetitive tasks and where this increased automation has already produced benefits. However, the characteristics of the tasks in the oil and gas industry differ from conventional manufacturing processes.
Robots in the oil and gas industry would have to perform inspection and operational tasks to maintain the process infrastructure . This means the robot would have more than one task and not all tasks could be predictable.
Furthermore, offshore topside facilities would have to see a redesign, since space is restricted, so robots could move around and access the process equipment. The design of such automated topside facilities focuses on existing industrial robots, with minor modification, so applications for the oil and gas industry can happen in harsh environments. We see this as a “game changer” for the oil and gas segment.
Challenges for oil and gas
Robotizing oil and gas facilities present many different challenges. These challenges are not only technical, but also have an impact on the whole organization, including the workforce.
Although robotics technology enjoys a proven reputation in other industries, it must adapt to the specific needs of the oil and gas industry. These applications are typically out in extreme environments and far away, requiring remote operation. There are system integration issues with a prerequisite for full data access and availability.
The roles of the robot will, therefore, change from the more conventional single repetitive, yet continuous task, often encountered on a production line, to the execution of a number of different tasks, each requiring flawless performance on demand.
The robot will have to operate at various levels of automation, from fully automatic requiring no human intervention, at one extreme, to completely manual operation at the other extreme.
In between, there will be various tasks with semi-automatic features, which will require varying degrees of human interaction. This represents a departure from the more traditional industrial robotics applications, in that human decision makers must be within the control loop to collaborate with the robots and the control system.
The successful automation of the oil and gas industry will, like all human-machine systems, rely on the seamless integration of man, technology, and organization.
Oil and gas installations impose different demands on the design and requirements of the robot. The robot will have to be explosion-proof approved, in addition to being resistant to harsh weather conditions.
Offshore robots will have to tolerate extreme temperatures, extreme winds, exposure to salt water, and even exposure to snow and ice. Onshore robots will have to tolerate sand storms, direct sunlight, rain and humidity, extreme temperatures, and exposure to different poisonous gases such as H2S. Such specifications are not usually required for reliable robot operations in conventional manufacturing process plants.
To a large extent, the design of the facility in which the task takes place determines the success of an automation project. It is much more difficult to automate tasks in an existing facility than it is in new purpose-built facilities.
The layout of existing facilities is not for standard industrial robots, particularly offshore topside installations, which are generally compact, presenting difficulties even to human workers when executing tasks.
Modifying existing installations is rather limited and represents major costs. It is generally more effective to design new facilities, or to perform a major redesign of existing facilities, with the automated process in mind, so many tasks can be carried out in a single facility and design features can be made to accommodate further additions should the process require scaling up. Such flexible facility design will allow greater process flexibility, increased productivity, and reduced cost.
While a robotized task, application, or facility provides many safety and productivity advantages, it also presents additional challenges with regard to their maintenance and operation.
Industrial robots replace human operators in the field; however, these robots are tools, which we must supervise and control. The robots and how they perform a task should be of no concern to the human decision makers.
The human supervisor’s role is to control the robot’s operations through the automation system based on the need to monitor, inspect, and maintain the oil and gas process equipment.
We must collect data concerning the state of the process equipment either automatically or on demand. Such data cannot replicate the human senses, and hence, cannot provide a similar representation of the process as it operates today.
However, the robots can use other sensors that human operators are unable to use, such as x-ray and computer chromatography. This so-called telepresence provides an advanced representation of the current process infrastructure so human operators are kept in the control loop, allowing them to use their high levels of skill to complement the power of remote manipulators. Robots as extended operator tools make up a natural part of the IO concept.
The robots represent assets that are a full part of the automation system. The various IO teams will base their understanding of the process and decisions on such representations.
The automation system receives and processes data collected by the robot before the system stores them for later use in other applications, or presents them directly to the operator, e.g., in the form of a report.
The operational team uses this information to make decisions. Team members can also actively search and ask for information. Their ultimate goal is to use all the information to monitor the current process and make decisions that will optimize the operation of the facility.
A major challenge for teleoperation within the oil and gas industry is, in particular, the remote nature of offshore installations. These can be located hundreds of miles away from land, conducting complex and dynamic operations in harsh environments.
Operation failures in such installations may result in major consequences for the environment and process equipment. Safe and efficient teleoperation is critical for such unmanned facilities, securing benefit and optimal productivity at remote locations.
There is a clear incentive for oil and gas companies to automate their oil and gas facilities, starting with isolated operations, such as pipe handling and assembly for drilling and tasks related to pig operations. These examples represent high-risk operations for humans and therefore provide opportunities to improve HSE.
A major step in the future will be to fully automate larger parts of the facility or even the entire facility. Such an approach has the potential to make a large impact on the flexibility and productivity of a facility.
Robotized future operators
Oil and gas facilities have huge potential to increase productivity, a significant part of which will result from the use of robotics-based automation.
In addition to productivity and efficiency gains, robots used for high-risk tasks will also lead to improvements in HSE. Such tasks are not necessarily always predictable and represent unusual robot activities. The robot will therefore require features that extend the “eyes, ears, and hands” of the human decision makers as they carry out inspections and maintenance operations on the process infrastructure.
The new role of the oil and gas facility operator will be to supervise and instruct the robots and to make operational decisions. The robotized facilities will allow marginal, remotely located fields to be cost effective for oil and gas production.
The greatest gains will come when the robotics systems fully integrate with the automation system, providing a tool for the human decision makers that aligns with the IO concept.
The goal of IO is to make real-time data available to the decision makers in (virtual) teams so they can make better and faster decisions. The robotized field operator is one of many means by which we can collect and test data to achieve a complete IO environment.
A major advantage of robots is such data collection tasks can take place in environments impossible for human operators, such as those rich in H2S, or can be collected using methods hazardous to human health, such as x-rays.
The degree to which the oil and gas industry benefits from robotics technology depends on how willing the industry is to change its organization and work processes in order to fully integrate the technology and overcome the technical challenges of IO.
Together with StatoilHydro, we are addressing both the technical and personnel-related challenges in an ambitious cooperative research project to automate the oil and gas industry.
Access to operative sites, together with unique competence in robotics, oil and gas, and systems integration, has the company in a good position to develop integrated robots and automation systems specifically adapted for the harsh and demanding oil and gas industry applications.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Trond Michael Andersen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an engineer with Statoil Research and Development in Trondheim, Norway. Charlotte Skourup (email@example.com) and John Pretlove (firstname.lastname@example.org) are process engineers with ABB Process Automation in Oslo.
IO, integrated operations, which StatoilHydro defines as “collaboration across disciplines, companies, organizational, and geographical boundaries, made possible by real-time data and new work processes, in order to reach safer and better decisions—faster.” To help identify the methods, technologies, and work processes necessary to integrate its operations, StatoilHydro appointed a research and development consortium consisting of ABB, IBM, SKF, and Aker Solutions. One of the seven sub-projects concentrates on robotics technology to supplement and extend human inspection and intervention capabilities at topside and onshore facilities. The objective is to develop solutions that combine telerobotics and advanced visualization to enable remotely operated inspection and maintenance operations, as well as to identify and close technology gaps.
Topside means part of an offshore oil and gas installation (or the body of a boat or ship) above the water level.
Pig operations: These are tasks take place within the pipeline, without stopping the flow, and include inspection and cleaning. Pigs are mechanical devices that make their way through the pipeline, and they get their name from the squealing sound they make while traveling therein.