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Autonomous systems hold the key

Written by  Sean Halpin, Liquid Robotics Sunday, 01 October 2017 00:00

Sean Halpin, of Liquid Robotics, shares the benefits awaiting the offshore oil and gas industry if it could only speed up implementation of digital oilfield technologies.

Wave Glider tow cable/towbody supports underwater communications and surface vessel detection. Images from Liquid Robotics, a Boeing company.

The Digital Oilfield is the transformation of sensors and structures communicating in real time, autonomously, and aided (and even potentially controlled) by artificial intelligence. The allure of instrumenting, recording, warehousing, analyzing and acting on the vast amounts of information available from an operating oilfield is certainly tempting and transformative.

The promise of the Digital Oilfield is the automation of oilfield operations to increase efficiencies, safety and reduce cost. We believe a critical component is autonomous unmanned systems, which can offload dangerous, tedious tasks from oilfield personnel and equipment while providing continuously monitoring of critical infrastructure, even during severe weather.

Autonomous unmanned systems will not only be the tools inspecting equipment, but the tools that enable communications between equipment. Imagine a future where these vehicles enable continuous observation of subsea infrastructure, providing operators immediate equipment status vs. waiting for annual surveys. The potential impact on offshore oilfield safety, efficiencies and profits could be enormous. As technology matures we see further integration of autonomous technology into the oilfield; however, we believe that the pace of innovation is now outpacing adoption. Why?

To achieve widespread acceptance of autonomous unmanned systems in the Digital Oilfield requires two things. The oilfield/operator must see an increase in safety (above all else) and an increase in operating profit. Integrating these systems offers a dramatic increase in both.

Two challenges: trust and technology

While you read this, you most likely have a handheld digital device close by – you may be reading articles on your smartphone or tablet. You use and trust these technologies every day. You store your life in the cloud; including photos of your family, your to-do list, and highlights of a great family vacation. This transformative technology has proven to be secure, reliable and allows instantaneously accessible information, and it has earned the public’s trust. As new transformative technologies arrive for the oilfield why do we not have the same level of trust?

The issue is that new technology challenges the status quo. For some, change, even with the promise of great upside, is uncomfortable. Companies seeking to drive innovation and profit frequently use new technologies to redefine the marketplace, reduce costs and increase productivity. It wasn’t long ago that remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) were viewed as fringe tools. Today, these systems dominate the oil and gas landscape. Overcoming the status quo with the adoption of advanced, autonomous technology will help companies implement the Digital Oilfield, and ultimately, will allow the industry to evolve in a ‘lower forever’ market.

Wave Gliders communicate with AUVs and subsea infrastructure while gathering in situ metocean data.

Challenges to technology adoption

Developing technology for deployment offshore is difficult, due to the severe operating environment, the policies surrounding technology adoption, and the pace of technology itself. By the time you’ve completed testing and hardening of a solution to handle the rigors of the marine environment the core technology in that solution has likely improved or changed.

Once a product is fully tested and qualified for marine use, it must then be demonstrated successfully. Few operators like to be ‘first’ to adopt new technology. Most, if not all, want a track record established because if new technology is placed in a critical role and fails, the consequences can be severe.

Add to this the challenge of working in the unpredictable, harsh ocean. Anything that works well onshore will likely work poorly offshore. The conditions offshore are brutal, especially for electronics.

How do we get to a Digital Oilfield?

Today, we see isolated examples of the Digital Oilfield in action, but one of the biggest missing components is a pervasive communications infrastructure. The reality of the industry’s complicated and expensive offshore operations is that cost effective and instant access to offshore data below the ocean is not available.

To gain this subsea data, communications from subsea infrastructures requires a reliable way to get the data back to a central repository, where it can be warehoused, analyzed and acted upon. At sea, we depend on data loggers or cabled infrastructure. Even with the extensive number of sensors in the oilfield today, some placed well after umbilicals and subsea umbilical termination assemblies (SUTAs) are installed, we need to have a new and highly reliable way to get the data back to a central repository. To enable the Digital Oilfield, we need to act differently, rid ourselves of costly infrastructure and adopt more scalable and modular solutions enabled through robots.

This is an area where autonomous systems and specifically unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) like the Wave Glider are proving invaluable. Sitting at the surface of the ocean and acting as a communication “gateway” between subsea instruments, sensors, and devices, USVs provide real time, 24x7 data communications without the need of cables or costly ships. This brings instant connectivity to the subsea domain.

This type of application, real-time gateway communications, is crucial in the Digital Oilfield concept. One example is in the area of earthquake and tsunami warning or deep ocean seismic detection. Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Scripps) uses Wave Gliders in concert with bottom node seismic sensors to detect tectonic plate movement in the deep ocean. They use Wave Gliders in two ways: one to tow and deploy the long duration bottom nodes to the deep sea; and two, to hold station over the nodes once placed to listen for seismic activity. By using unmanned ocean robots to continuously monitor tectonic movement for months and up to a year, Scripps can provide real-time notification of seismic events. Even 10 minutes of early warning of an impending tsunami can have a tremendous impact in saving coastal communities. The analogies are true for offshore platforms. The ability to have continuous monitoring and early warning provides the critical timing to help minimize or avoid catastrophic events.

Where do we go from here?

Recent developments in the offshore market necessitate that we all take a hard look at incorporating autonomous systems into offshore operations. ‘Business as usual’ is a dead phrase in our industry. We are faced with shrinking budgets and mounting costs, and just like in the past, we should turn to technology to push our industry forward toward profitability in a low-price environment.

As an industry, we can only succeed if we make the decision to vet and adopt technology at a more rapid pace. Technology has changed our lives onshore and has enriched our businesses and families. It’s time for us to leverage proven, commercial autonomous technologies to enable the Digital Oilfield, enriching our lives and business at sea. The future is up to the workers and managers of the oilfield to embrace this change in a proactive manner.


Sean Halpin
is senior director of Global Energy Markets for Liquid Robotics, A Boeing company. He previously worked at DOF Subsea as their Global AUV Manager. He holds a BS in marine science from Maine Maritime Academy.

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