September 05, 2012      

Deep-sea oil exploration is a perfect scenario for automation and robotics: There are lots of oil wells to drill and oil platforms to manage yet not enough workers.

Not only is the oil exploration and development industry facing a worker shortage problem but also an aging workforce problem as well (average age is almost 50!). One petroleum industry consulting group estimates that it’ll take between 7,000 and 8,000 new workers to staff all the new oil rigs coming online in the next two years.

According to the oil field services research company, Baker-Hughes, the global supply of mobile offshore drilling rigs (MODUs) now stands at 827 and there are just over 3,200 oil platforms worldwide. It is reckoned that automation of deep-sea oil production would use fewer people, speed production and increase yield, which sounds like a perfect match for instant management and stockholder approval.

Previously, oil and robots didn?t mix

Until recently, robots have been a hard sell in an industry that has long relied on human ingenuity, says Mark Reese, president of rig solutions at National Oilwell Varco. “In the past, it’s been all about, ‘We need more and more people and experience, and that’s the only way to accomplish this task,'” Reese said.

Robotic Drilling Systems

The 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico helped shift attitudes, says Clay Williams, chief financial officer at National Oilwell Varco.

Eleven men were killed when the Deepwater Horizon rig caught fire and sank.

Statoil has projected that automation may cut in half the number of workers needed on an offshore rig and help complete jobs 25 per cent faster, says Steinar Strom, former head of a research and development unit on automation at the Norwegian company.

CTO Kenneth Mikalsen of Robotic Drilling Systems (recent name change from Seabed Rig) came from a career in industrial robotics (ABB Robotics).

He moved to oil and gas drilling in 2007, at Seabed Rig?s founding, when he discovered how this conservative industry needed the same upgrade that factories underwent in the 1980s and 1990s.

“You can find more automation in a modern farm today than you can on a drilling rig,” Mikalsen says. As a result, he says, Robotic Drilling Systems doesn?t so much require brave new tech as much as it simply needs to get an antiquated industry to catch up to the 21st century: “We believe most of the technology we need to fully automate this drilling operation is out there.

Of course, there are always a few exceptions like Royal Dutch Shell?s autonomous drilling control system, known as SCADAdrill, which is undergoing tests in the Netherlands.

Basically, for the industry as a whole, Mikalsen is correct when he says: ?We just need to go out and get the right technologies and put them together.” Those technologies include robotic arms with semi-autonomous robotic control software developed for NASA deep-space and planetary missions.

Getting curious about Curiosity

National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Mars rover has something to teach the oil industry?and the industry is listening, especially Robotic Drilling Systems, which signed an information-sharing agreement with NASA to discover what it might learn from the rover Curiosity.

The company’s work is part of a larger futuristic vision for the energy industry. Engineers foresee a day when fully automated rigs roll onto a job site using satellite coordinates, erect 14-storey-tall steel reinforcements on their own, drill a well, then pack up and move to the next site.

“You’re seeing a new track in the industry emerging,” says Eric van Oort, a former Royal Dutch Shell executive who’s leading a new graduate-level engineering program focused on automated drilling at the University of Texas at Austin. “This is going to blossom.”

Apache, National Oilwell Varco, and Statoil are among the companies working on technology that will take humans out of the most repetitive, dangerous, and time-consuming parts of oil field work.
“It sounds futuristic,” says Kenneth Sondervik, sales and marketing vice-president for Robotic Drilling Systems.

He compares it to other areas that have become highly automated, such as car manufacturing or cruise missile systems.

Robot roustabouts and deckhands

Robotic Drilling Systems is designing a series of robots to take over the repeatable tasks now done by deckhands, roughnecks, and pipehandlers on a rig. Its blue, 10-foot-tall robot deckhand has a jointed arm that can extend about 10 feet, with 15 or so interchangeable hands of assorted sizes.

Robotic Drilling Systems

The robot is anchored in place to give it better leverage as it lifts drill bits that weigh more than a ton and maneuvers them into place.

The Sandnes, Norway-based company also is collaborating with researchers at Stanford University on a three-fingered robot hand embedded with sensors that give it a touch delicate enough to pick up an egg without crushing it.

Automation arriving in fits and starts

National Oilwell Varco of Houston, the largest United States maker of oilfield equipment, and Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services provider, have developed drill pipe wired with high-speed data lines to allow the bit to feed information to workers at the surface.

Apache, the third-largest US independent oil and natural-gas producer by market value, is writing software that will essentially allow the drill bit to think for itself, communicating directly with equipment at the surface that controls speed and direction.

Graham Brander, the company’s director of worldwide drilling, sees it working much like a plane on autopilot, flying on its own with a human on standby, ready to assume the controls if necessary. “That’s what I view very much as the automation model for the oil and gas business,” he says.

Neil Tardella of the Cambridge, Mass.?based Energid Technologies Corp. ?developers of the Actin software, which has been tested on NASA and U.S. Department of Defense robots for more than a decade?says it takes a small and nimble team like Robotic Drilling Systems to take the kind of R&D risks needed to pioneer sea drilling that today relies on decades-old technology and manual labor.

“Once this technology is proved, it?ll revolutionize the industry,” Tardella says.

Robotic Drilling Systems was previously known as Seabed Rig, and was founded in 2005 by the four serial entrepreneurs Per Olav Haughom, Henning Hansen, Per Gunnar Vigre and Lars Raunholt. Robotic Drilling Systems has completed its own solutions using technology from Energid Inc., the world leader in axis control systems for advanced robots. Robot Drilling Systems is also cooperating with leading research institutions such as Stanford University and NASA.