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Wednesday, 10 January 2018 00:00

Rise of the robot in offshore operations

2017 became the year that the oil and gas industry embraced robotics. Elaine Maslin reports on initiatives in the North Sea (first published in the January 2018 OE, access the full issue here).

While the industry has long been using autonomous underwater systems and remotely operated tooling, and more recently subsea processing equipment and aerial drones, this year the broader potential for robotics took some tentative steps towards realizing the first topsides robots.

French oil major Total completed its Argos (Autonomous Robot for Gas and Oil Sites) Challenge, in Lacq, France (OE: May 2017), which saw five teams pitch their robotic creations against a string of tasks on a mock-platform site. Total’s aim – part of a broader project towards reducing manning offshore – was to create a robot that is able to detect and control leaks, while weighing less than 100kg, that can move between floors, and on different types of flooring, from grating and corrugated iron to cement and wet slippery surfaces, under its own power.

Chevron has also been testing so-called snake-arm robots for inside vessel inspection in the North Sea. This followed work it was involved in as part of the Petrobot robotic challenge (OE: April 2016), which involved vessel and tank inspection robot development, and led to the formation of the Sprint Robotics Collaborative, based in the Netherlands. 

Now, another initiative has been launched with nearly US$19 million (£14.3 million) in funding from the UK Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF). The initiative is a new research center focused on offshore robotics, led by the University of Edinburgh.

The Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets (ORCA) Hub will develop robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies for use in extreme and unpredictable environments. The hub will work to develop robot-assisted asset inspection and maintenance technologies, which can make autonomous and semi-autonomous decisions and interventions across aerial, topside and marine domains. 

“The application for robotics in the [oil and gas] industry is almost limitless, and we have only just scratched the surface,” says Rebecca Allison, asset integrity solution center manager at the publicly-funded Oil & Gas Technology Centre in Aberdeen. Allison is keen on robotics and its potential to improve inspections and reduce manual involvement in asset integrity management activities, such as pressure vessel and insulted pipework inspection (which require production shutdown if human-entry is involved). 

But, she also highlights use of emerging underwater survey vehicles, which can carry out simple manipulation tasks and “the next generation of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technology.” 

“It’s about improving safety, removing personnel, and being more connected and competitive,” she says. “In 10 years or so, robotics will become common place, just as self-driving cars will not be viewed as robots, just like any piece of technology we use to manage assets. I would like to see future generations working alongside robots, even learning from them.” 

Robotics is coming to the fore now because of a drive to increase productivity, but also to reduce offshore manning, says David Lane, autonomous systems engineering professor and director of the Edinburgh Centre of Robotics. It’s also being enabled thanks to the likes of the iPhone, miniaturization of electronics, the number of transistors that can now be put on a chip and developments in machine learning.

Oskar von Stryk, professor and head of simulation, systems optimization and robotics group at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, was on the winning team in Total’s Argos Challenge – Argonauts – alongside Austrian robotics firm Taurob, and is now working with Total to further develop offshore robotic systems.

He says that robotic systems can take very different forms but that there are three key elements that make up a robot: 

  • Sensors, to understand its own status in the environment 
  • Algorithms, to integrate the sensors and plan what to do 
  • An ability to act, and interact with humans and the environment 

“The key difference between robot and human is that humans see and understand. Robots just collect data – i.e. numbers – and just compute to try get some information about these numbers.” For example, the information the Argonauts gathered during the Argos Challenge was just point data. 

Three classic tasks for robots are those that are dirty, dangerous, and dull. Robots can be more capable, efficient and fast, Stryk says. To date, robotic systems have focused on working in planar environments, i.e. self-driving vehicles (passenger, farming, mining, etc.), logistics systems (moving shelves to pickers), auto delivery robots, and search and rescue robots. For these, navigation, self-localization and mapping systems are needed. Going into more 3D environments, such as offshore platforms, is harder, he says. 

Existing robotic systems have also mostly been working in isolation, i.e. zones without human presence. But, there’s much work ongoing to enable robots to work alongside humans – so-called “cobots,” or collaboration robots. German firm Franka Emica has developed a robotic arm that responds to touch and moves in such a way that it can avoid collision with an also moving human.  

These are some of the challenges an offshore robot might face, with the addition of having to be ATEX certified and able to handle harsh environments. Offshore robots will have to be able to navigate complex structures, including going up stairs, and might be tasked with scheduled operations, occasional operations, and emergency response, such as inspections like acoustic measurement, as well as monitoring, gas detection, thermal imagining, and even maintenance tasks, cleaning or evening valve operation. The robot could also find and fight fires. 

The Argonauts’ robot was ATEX certified and able to climb upstairs. “We have demonstrated it’s possible,” Stryk says. “Autonomous robots can be used on oil and gas sites. The vision, towards 2021, is mainly robots on offshore and onshore sites with industrial strength.”


Lane says that subsea systems, or ocean robotics, have been operating autonomously for over 40 years because of the limitations of underwater communication (the boundaries of which today are being chipped away). “Autonomy has long been part of what marine robotics have been about,” he says, highlighting the likes of the Remus AUV, introduced in 1990. 

However, systems with more functionality are now emerging, some because of years of development work, such as Subsea 7’s AIV (autonomous inspection vehicle), which has drawn on research at Heriot-Watt and spun out unmanned vehicle software specialists SeeByte. The AIV has been performing subsea inspections for Shell in the North Sea, untethered, Lane says. It’s able to locate itself and can go to 3000m water depth, venture on 40km excursions and has 24-hour dive time, depending on the mission. 

“Marine robotics can currently do mapping and tracking very well, inspecting pipelines over quite long distances, but it’s scarier when you try to dock something,” he says. Having vehicles that can dock would make tasks easier, as they’d be stationary, but it also enables recharging and data download/upload for subsea resident vehicles. 

There have been projects, such as, the EU ALIVE, led by Cybernetics, which worked on docking station technology.

However, there’s also been work done on whether a vehicle could dock, and then perform pre-programmed tasks such as turning a valve or adapt to the situation, using machine learning.

The Pandora EU AUV project has also investigated how to teach a robot to turn a valve. There has  also been research done to stabilize the end of a manipulator arm, instead of trying to stabilize the vehicle, Lane says. 

The University of Girona, in Spain, (also involved in Pandora) focused its research on auto-learning, turning of a valve, and reaction to an accident in its Girona 500 project.  

“We can do these things, the next phase is to make it robust so we can take it offshore. The hard part is cognition,” i.e. vehicles being able to recognize what they’re looking at, map and navigate unmapped areas on the fly, says Lane. 


The same innovations are happening in unmanned aerial vehicles, in terms of increasing autonomy and sensor payload. Initially, drones have been manually flown to gather images as part of inspection work. Now the focus is on automated flight and being able to extend the inspection capabilities. 

William Jackson, a researcher at Strathclyde University, UK, says drones can both build or use an existing CAD model to detect changes in a structure over time, for example an offshore wind turbine blade. The drone would be able to autonomously navigate around the blade, using the blade as its reference.  For larger areas, drones could work in an array, with the images stacked into a high-resolution image.  

But, sensor payloads are going further. Drones have already been flown inside vessel tanks. Earlier this year, Texo Drone Survey and Inspection (UKCS), a division of Texo DSI, said it had deployed the world’s first UT (ultrasonic thickness testing) from a UAV. This was just part of a pilot at a test site, but would extend drone inspection capability.

Texo says that it can be used on flat or curved surfaces and has been used in the offshore and onshore wind turbine structures, as well as on telecoms and maritime assets, the firm says. The inspection data is combined with a photogrammetric visual overlay of the completed survey, helping to pinpoint exact measurement locations on a structure/surface to an accuracy of sub-10mm, Texo says. Use of pulsed eddy current from a drone is also being tested, Jackson says. This is a non-connect electromagnetic technique for metal thickness testing. 

The next step would be getting different robotics systems to work together, Lane says. This is something happening in the subsea industry, with autonomous surface vehicles communicating and working with autonomous underwater vehicles. 


With the potential seeming limitless, OGTC and Orca Hub are focused on what would be useful to the industry. At an OGTC robotics workshop in Aberdeen in early November, the results were 15 potential use cases for robotics and a gap analysis to identify areas that would benefit from future ‘Call for Ideas’ or new joint industry projects. 

The use cases included fully autonomous aerial drones, that can plan and navigate their own flight path (something drone operators are already working on); small, highly agile robots that can autonomously, climb, navigate and perform inspections, with little or no human intervention and support (such as Total’s Argos Challenge robots); and a type of pipeline inspection gauge (PIG) that is autonomous, adaptable, reliable, multifunctional and capable of working in harsh environments. 

Further detail was hashed out for each area of robotics that could apply offshore: 


Fully autonomous drones that could plan and navigate their own flight path would remove the need for manned inspections by using remote solutions, would enable repeatable activities, improving data quality (data collected from the same place at known intervals), with easily fitted and replicable sensors, and capability for multiple sensor monitoring and data collection. 

Challenges to such a scenario include regulation around the machine learning systems used for automated flight, as well as payload limitations, drone and data security. 

The OGTC workshop suggested areas that could be worked on to enable this technology, including launch and recovery systems, obstacle awareness and avoidance systems, alternative power options, drone diagnostics, communications systems integration into simultaneous operations and permit to work systems, and regulatory acceptance. There were also questions around flying in areas without GPS coverage, around live plant, and adapting to weather conditions.


The land workshop set out a vision for small, highly agile robots that can autonomously navigate complex, 3D oil and gas installations, while localizing itself, finding points of interest and performing non-destructive testing and needing little human intervention and support. 

Such a system would help reduce offshore manning, enable an increase in frequency and quality of inspections, aid fault prediction and maintenance scheduling, and deeper analysis, improve safety by reducing risk exposure to staff, and also better capture and make available working knowledge of facilities (instead of it being lost as older crews leave and younger people are less interested in jobs offshore). 

No challenges were suggested to this scenario but possible areas where work needed to be done to make it happen included “locomotion strategy,” i.e. how platform robots move about, navigation, localization and intelligence, power management, maintenance, payload integration, and communications infrastructure (OE: December 2017). 

It was also suggested that multiple coordinated robots could be used, with a mother unit providing communications and navigation. How robots would adhere to various surfaces was also discussed, as well as ATEX compliance, and power/charging stations and payload, and integration with permits to work systems. 


Subsea robotics would aid inspection and surveillance, including pipeline wall thickness, augmented using cloud-based analytics and machine learning, to identify corrosion, putting, scabs, etc. Such a system would be deployable anywhere and could adapt to new environments, leverage past inspection data, flag faults, reduce survey time, improve data reliability and make end user interpretation easier.

Challenges for this vision were around data – both security, data sharing, format and handling/management. Areas for more work included creating open cloud databases of previous inspection data and automated communications related to machine learning, i.e. an application to upload data into a cloud based system, with machine learning, and data analytics. 

There were also questions around how to deal with limited availability of ground truth data and power and data management for long missions, also working in variable environments, reactions to break downs. There was also a lot of concern about commercial models and collaboration, and common data models. 

Images from the OGTC, by Rory Raitt, taken at the Robotics Week opening event in Aberdeen late 2017. 

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UK offshore robotics center launched

The robot race

Monday, 08 January 2018 03:38

OGTC awards $1.76 million in P&A funding

Aberdeen's Oil & Gas Technology Centre (OGTC) is to invest US$1.76 million (£1.3 million) in four projects aimed at developing new plugging and abandonment (P&A) technologies.

BiSN, Strathclyde University, Heriot-Watt University and Baker Hughes will each take a share of the cash after being picked from 48 submissions, which were made to the OGTC under a Call for Ideas for P&A technology.

The OGTC says that, over the next decade, 1400 wells are forecast to be abandoned on the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS), at a cost of about $9.47 billion (£7 billion). There's any industry goal to reduce decommissioning costs by 35%, however, a target set by the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), the UK's oil industry regulator. According to the OGA's 2016 Stewardship Survey, P&A represents 48% of the total cost of UKCS decommissioning.


OGTC will work with BiSN to test and verify the company’s Wel-Lok M2M technology, which uses a modified thermite heater, in conjunction with bismuth-based alloys, to form a permanent barrier. It provides an alternative to traditional elastomer seals, resins and cement. Being deployed on wireline without the need to remove tubing, the technology addresses several fundamental downhole sealing challenges simultaneously and could deliver significant time, cost and environmental benefits.

You will be able to read more about BiSN's technology in the February issue of OE. To receive a complementary copy, sign up here


The University of Strathclyde’s idea uses enzymes to repair or improve cement barriers in wells that have been plugged and abandoned. This ‘Biogrout’ technology, currently being developed for other industries, will be assessed in typical downhole conditions. It’s low viscosity and nanoparticle size enables it to penetrate and seal the smallest of spaces.


Heriot-Watt University is developing a modelling framework for well isolation design that would help evaluate and manage risk, increase efficiency and enhance decision-making. This could deliver cost and time savings through reduced scope, remediation and deployment of new technology, such as through-tubing and rigless abandonment.

Baker Hughes 

OGTC will work with Baker Hughes, a GE company (BHGE), to develop a technology that delivers cement logging through multiple casing strings, improving on existing solutions which deliver logging behind only one casing or tubular. This could reduce the cost and time associated with removing casing to verify barrier integrity.

The OGTC's Well Construction Call for Ideas, which is due to launch in coming weeks, focuses on new well systems, seabed pressure isolation and ways to stimulate well flow.

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Seeking P&A alternatives

Friday, 05 January 2018 03:39

Propelling UK subsea innovation

Elaine Maslin profiles subsea organization National Subsea Research Initiative (NSRI)  and its current work as it prepares for a change in leadership (first published in the January 2018 OE, access full issue here).  

Since its launch in 2014, the NSRI, the technology arm of industry-body Subsea UK, has been a driving force in subsea technology development, not least in the small pools space. 

Heading the organization is Gordon Drummond – who will return to his full time day job as engineering manager at Subsea 7 this month (January 2018) – aided by a board led by Peter Blake, subsea systems manager for the Chevron Energy Technology Company. With Subsea Expo, organized by Subsea UK, on the agenda next month (February 7-9, at Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, Scotland), OE caught up with the pair on what the NSRI has been doing these past three years. 

But first…

NSRI is in fact the new form of an organization with an almost identical name, the National Subsea Research Institute, which was established in 2009, and led by the University of Aberdeen. Its aim was to create a focus for the development of subsea technology and expertise, linked to academic research. In 2013, Subsea 7 technology director John Mair saw the organization’s potential and wanted to bring new life to it, shifting the emphasis from academic research to being an industry-led, for industry initiative. By 2014, Gordon Drummond, engineering manager at Subsea 7, had been installed as NSRI project director, on a three-year secondment, with Peter Blake as chairman, leading an advisory board. 

Small pools

Small pools was picked as the first NSRI challenge. The timing was good, as small pools had been highlighted by the UK’s Technology Leadership Board as a theme for MER UK (Maximizing Economic Resources). For NRSI, it was a good fit – a national industrial challenge, which played into the subsea space. 

Small pools are something of a conundrum. It’s estimated that there is 3 billion boe locked up in known small pools on the UK Continental Shelf. Part of the challenge is having technologies to economically develop them. The other part is commercial and about mindsets. They’re not a big enough prize for the larger companies, but smaller companies don’t, perhaps, have the wherewithal to tackle them, which means this resource falls between two commercial models. There may be a need for multi-company collaboration to “pool” resource to create a large enough resource for development. 

Technology will play a key role, however. Blake says that’s what the NSRI has tackled, starting with a hackathon, followed by workshops addressing topics such as subsea storage, predictive monitoring and digital oilfield technologies (OE: December 2015 & August 2016).

“You will see up-take of these technologies, in five years’ time. The big thing NSRI did was start the debate,” — Peter Blake, pictured right. 

Handing on the baton

The NSRI’s work in this space has helped give exposure to the potential in small pools, resulting in it being a focus for the Oil & Gas Authority, Oil & Gas UK, through its Efficiency Task Force, which looked at subsea tieback concepts (OE: Efficiency cubed, April 2017), and now the Oil & Gas Technology Centre, which is largely following the framework for technology development set out by the NSRI, since taking on small pools as a challenge earlier this year. 

There’s not a rush to develop small pools, yet, however. It takes time to build the technology and the environment, says Blake, who worked on Deepstar 25 years ago. 

“At the time, there wasn’t really any deepwater development in the US Gulf of Mexico. Twenty-five years later there is stacks of it. Deepstar was partly accountable for that,” he says.

It wasn’t so much about the technology that finally made deepwater viable, and the same is true of small pools, Blake adds, although he says that time is not on their side, with infrastructure now starting to be removed. “You will see up-take of these technologies, in five years’ time. The big thing NSRI did was start the debate,” he says. It showed that the technology is possible, the commercial side, the mindset, needs to catch up.

Subsea springboard

NSRI has been busy in other areas, however. Early on, it launched Developer Days (now Technology Springboard), which put technology developers in front of buyers (access to which many find challenging), and its Matchmaker tool – an online “dating” service – to connect technology firms with universities and test centers with expertise relevant to their technology. 

Through these events, technology developers like Aberdeenshire-based Exnics have been given a foot in the door. Since presenting at the first Developer Day, Exnics, for example, got an offshore trial of its hot rings technology with EnQuest on the Scolty-Crathes subsea tieback. We’ve been following Exnics progress in OE this year (OE: Circular energy, November 2017). Another firm, EC-OG, has been working with Shell on its subsea power hub concept. 

PIctured left, Gordon Drummond.

Mapping renewables

Meanwhile, with the help of two interns, seconded from engineering group Wood, work also got underway mapping out the subsea challenges in offshore renewables and subsea mining, supported by events, and helping to build the Matchmaker database. Last year, another intern took over and is focusing on wave and tidal energy opportunities. 

Other events, including days highlighting expert skills available in academia, in materials and subsea inspection, as well as test facilities and funding routes, have also been held. 

The dream, however, is to create a subsea center of excellence, which fully links the world leading UK industry, with academia, qualification and testing and deployment opportunities across the subsea sector. It would comprise an underwater test center, a technology incubator and a digital virtual community. Scottish Enterprise has been involved in assessing the testing and development center potential, which could involve building a dummy offshore asset, which could be used for testing, to get around operators not wanting to test technologies on live wells. 

“That’s one of the big barriers, to get in field and getting technology wet,” Drummond, pictured above, left, says. Creating a subsea center of excellence would be the ultimate end goal, Blake says, even if it did mean that the work of the NSRI was complete. 

Meanwhile, the next three years, under a new project manager, is set to focus more on diversification; looking at other sectors the NSRI has not tapped fully into yet, as well as areas within oil and gas that haven’t been looked at yet, such as decommissioning. Changes have already been made to the board to reflect these wider interests. The NSRI also hopes to add more academic input from outside Scotland and to help map more global opportunities for the supply chain. 

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Cutting the umbilical

Tanked up - subsea storage 

Subsea Expo 

With the theme ‘Facing the Future’, Subsea Expo 2018, supported by OE, will look at what must be done to continue to reinvent the industry in a new reality. Key industry topics this year will include global markets, ROV developments, subsea innovation and offshore renewables. The event returns 7-9 February 2018 at the AECC in Aberdeen.

During Subsea Expo, the 2018 Subsea UK Awards will be presented. Find out who the finalists are here.
Wednesday, 03 January 2018 00:00

ROV market outlook

The ROV market isn’t out of the woods yet, with plentiful supply in the market dampening any perceived uptick in activity. But, offshore wind might offer some respite. Elaine Maslin reports (first published in the January 2018 OE, access full issue here). 

A 6000m Quasar Work Class ROV system, from SMD, which was supplied to Shanghai Salvage, with SMD’s firm’s first electric winch, late 2017.
Image from SMD. 

The remote operated vehicle (ROV) market has had a tough time during the last few years due to its reliance on drilling operations. 

The impact of the downturn on utilization rates and pricing, as well as the market outlook, was discussed by Andrew Reid, managing director of Douglas Westwood, part of Westwood Global Energy Group, at Subsea UK’s Underwater Vehicles Conference in Aberdeen late November. 

“It’s quite evident that the ROV market has been in real trouble over the last couple of years,” Reid says. “We’ve seen drops in pricing, anywhere between 10-40%, since the downturn.” Utilization rates, as activity has dropped, has seen market reductions for some by as much as 50%, he adds. 

ROV days have seen a 33% average reduction. Drill support ROV days are down 37%, and construction support -46%. 

“We do expect a recovery, but not to 2014 levels,” Reid says. “This time around we have seen IMR (inspection repair and maintenance) also hit hard, down 22%. We always saw maintenance as a relatively protected market. But, there’s been a combination of a reduction in activity and a delay in work programs that were not a necessity. 

“Certain work practices prevailed during the better times, which led to, I suppose, overinvestment, i.e. if someone has a construction vessel on a term-based contract, you’re more inclined to do jobs because you already have a fixed cost base as an operator. Now that we’re moving more to a spot market, we’ll see more necessary work.”

Bottomed out

Hopefully the worst is over, however. “We are coming to the view that the market has at least bottomed,” Reid says. “Many of the characteristics that have influenced it are starting to stabilize. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Where the tunnel ends is still quite a challenge to predict.”

That’s because final investment decisions (FIDs) are still being delayed, he says. There was sentiment from Tier 1 contractors that 2017 would be a bell weather year, with FIDs coming through, “but we are not seeing those yet,” he says. How much the growing autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) market chips in to the ROV market also remains to be seen. 

Oceaneering’s eNovus compact work class ROV. Illustration from Oceaneering. 

Drilling is a core driver for the ROV sector and this segment saw a peak year in 2014, with more than 2500 offshore wells drilled. While the outlook today is improved, compared with the past two years, and is relatively stable, growth is only expected to 2022, Reid says. “This has created big issues in an industry where there was, in 2013-2014, an expected continued growth trajectory, perhaps surpassing the 3000 offshore well mark. The industry invested in capability to supply that demand, but the activity didn’t come and that’s led to oversupply and it’s going to remain a stressed market from supply and demand.” 

One area of optimism is offshore wind. “It’s the good news, particularly in Europe,” Reid says. “There’s significant investment in building out offshore wind infrastructure, and many projects are deeper offshore, with greater complexity, and lend themselves to the experience and capabilities from oil and gas. We’re looking at just shy of US$355 billion (€300 billion) being spent between now and 2025, two-thirds in Europe and a third of that in the UK, mirroring that almost of drill support work.” 

Making up the rest of the balance of ROV activity is construction support, IMR, and decommissioning, “everyone’s silver bullet,” Reid says. “I don’t see it particularly. There will be ROV driven activity from those programs, but it’s going to represent 5% of ROV days through the forecast period, it’s still small.”

In summary, he says the macro outlook is improving, but it still remains vulnerable. While the ROV market will improve and “come off bottom,” pricing isn’t expected to grow any time soon, due to the supply overhang. “We’ve got more to look forward to, but it’s going to be hard for us all to prosper.”

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