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The rise of robotic roughnecks


The oil and gas sector is increasing its use of robots and automation to boost efficiency and reduce costs.

The introduction of automation is taking place in almost every sector of industry, and the oil and gas industry is no different. 

Companies such as Honeybee Robotics, Liquid Robotics, Bluefin Robotics and Deep Ocean Engineering are developing a range of automated systems. These include intelligent machines capable of exploration deep under the ocean; small maintenance robots developed to identify and repair faults in sub-sea pipelines; and systems designed to monitor and manage marine biology.

An example is the $1 million Iron Roughneck, made by National Oilwell Varco, which automates the repetitive and dangerous job of connecting hundreds of segments of drill pipe as they are put under miles of water and oil bearing rock.

Meanwhile, private company Robotic Drilling Systems is developing the world’s first fully autonomous robotic oil rig in Stavanger, Norway. The rig coordinates control of multiple robots to perform complex drilling operations. The robots have more than 100 axes of motion that move in real time, and are robust enough for drilling operations. The first commercial version of the system is under development, and a first beta deployment is expected later this year.

The global underwater robots market is set to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.9% over the period 2014-2019, according to market research specialist Research and Markets. "The growing need for underwater robotics for ocean surveillance in the field of scientific research has forced several market vendors and research institutions to develop perpetual underwater robotics for continuous surveillance," it said.

These devices are also driving innovation in other sectors, "Perpetual underwater robotics have the ability to refuel themselves and are powered by natural, renewable, and ocean thermal energy," Research and Markets explained.

Sector welcomes Nasa
Two major collaborative projects in the sector have already been announced this year. Nasa has agreed to loan Woodside Energy one of its robots to see how the technology could be used to tackle jobs that are too dangerous for humans.

The Australian oil and gas giant will receive a Nasa Robonaut for a five-year deployment in Perth, as part of a new partnership between the two organisations. The robonaut is a dexterous humanoid robot designed and built at Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas. Robonauts are already being used for simple, repetitive, or especially dangerous tasks in places such as the International Space Station. Woodside says the machine could perform tasks from more than 300 ideas suggested by its operators, engineers and maintenance workers.

Woodside will contribute its advanced cognitive science technology, being developed in its Western Australian operations, to the partnership.

Shaun Gregory, Woodside’s senior vice-president and chief technology officer, says: “The partnership fits well with our collaborative approach to innovation. We want the best thinkers from inside and outside our company to be working on solutions that unlock value in our operations. It also supports the Western Australian innovation agenda and will help our state realise its potential to be a global centre for scientific and technological excellence.”

IoT benefits
In addition, Honeywell and Aereon have announced plans to jointly develop solutions to help oil and gas companies boost the safety, efficiency and reliability of their operations by leveraging Honeywell’s Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) ecosystem.

Andrew Hird, vice-president and general manager of Honeywell Process Solutions’ Digital Transformation business, explains: “For years, manufacturers and producers have looked for ways to solve operational problems that were believed to be unsolvable – such as unplanned downtime, underperforming assets and inefficient supply chains.

“With the capabilities of the IIoT, we can find new ways to solve those problems. A key part is the creation of an industrial ecosystem that leverages the depth of knowledge and experience of a range of equipment and service providers such as Aereon.”

The Inspire ecosystem is a key part of Honeywell’s Connected Plant initiative that helps manufacturers leverage the IIoT to improve the safety, efficiency and reliability of operations across a single plant or several plants across an enterprise.

Honeywell and its partners are building a simple-to-use infrastructure that gives customers secure methods to capture and aggregate data, and apply advanced analytics.

This infrastructure leverages domain knowledge from a vast and unique ecosystem of leading equipment vendors and process licensors, and allows customers to use this information to determine methods to reduce or even eliminate manufacturing upsets and inefficiencies.

With a larger, consolidated data set, manufacturers and producers can apply higher analytics for more detailed insight, scale the data as needed to meet the varied needs of single-site or enterprise-wide operations, and leverage a wider pool of data experts for monitoring and analysis.

Oil and gas sector insolvencies have increased around the world in recent years following the slump in oil prices, these new technologies offer companies an opportunity to improve efficiency and reduce costs, so it’s likely their popularity will continue to grow.


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