Unmanned floating FLNG - the next frontier

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Norwegian classification and verification outfit DNV GL unveiled an unmanned floating LNG concept, which it thinks could unlock the potential of remote offshore gas fields.

DNV GL's Solitude concept.
Image from DNV GL. 

The so-called Solitude concept could use fuel cell technology for power and robots for autonomous inspection and maintenance, with wireless sensor networks to inform condition monitoring, says DNV GL.  

Such a concept would eliminate personal safety risks associated with manned-FLNG and for when manned intervention was required, a new support and accommodation vessel concept and associated docking system, could be used, the firm says. 

DNV GL says most of the technology required for such a concept is already within reach and could be combined into a solution that would only be slightly more expensive in terms of capex, but save some 20% in annual OPEX, while also increasing personnel safety. 

But, the idea is likely to have some opposition – trade unions have already opposed moves to create unmanned cargo vessels. 

While the idea of automated ships was first considered decades ago and may seem far-fetched, it is being considered seriously. 

A multi-billion dollar European Commission funded project called MUNIN – Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks – is aiming to develop and verify a concept for an autonomous ship, defined as a vessel primarily guided by automated on-board decision systems but controlled by a remote operator in a shore side control station.

Last year, Rolls-Royce revealed it is designing unmanned cargo ships. Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean development team has set up a virtual-reality prototype at its office in Alesund, Norway. Eventually, the London-based manufacturer of engines and turbines says, captains on dry land will use similar control centers to command hundreds of crewless ships.


An existing FLNG concept. Image from DNV GL.

But, unmanned LNG processing technologies could pose greater challenges. However, DNV GL says FLNG technology is developing rapidly as part of the industry’s quest for resources in more remote waters. The world’s first FLNG projects will be Shell’s Prelude FLNG project, due to be operational offshore Australia in 2017, and Petronas’ PFLNG 1 project, for offshore Malaysia.  

DNV GL says it foresaw the need for more remote projects to be able to overcome even more challenging cost barriers, whilst still meeting increasingly stringent safety and environmental standards. The develop a concept it ran an Extraordinary Innovation Project to explore the future of LNG technology. 

“Solitude has been developed with maintainability foremost in mind,” says Elisabeth Tørstad, DNV GL CEO Oil & Gas.  “By changing the focus from maximum efficiency to maximum reliability, and selecting robust processing options with built-in redundancy, we were able to develop a solution that ensures production levels and boosts the economic viability of FLNG projects.”

DNV GL says Solitude makes use of advanced but mainly available technology to provide its power, i.e. by using fuel cells, which it says would improve power generation reliability and the unit’s environmental footprint.

Equipment throughout the FLNG would be modularized and monitored from shore with much of the routine maintenance and fault correction carried out by self-programming autonomous inspection and maintenance units (robots). The topside would have a system of rails running alongside each process train, providing the robots with access to all equipment.

Wireless sensor networks would feed information to a condition monitoring system that overseas fault detection, proactive maintenance and repair planning. For maintenance campaigns, a new support and accommodation vessel concept and its associated docking system on the FLNG would be deployed. 

“Existing frontier oil and gas projects have resulted in tremendous technological developments, particularly in the subsea realm, and Solitude draws on this,” says Ms Tørstad. “Operators are already controlling subsea installations and simple, fixed offshore installations from shore. Given the on-going advances in autonomous systems and remote operations, unmanned offshore installations are a natural development over the next few decades.”

“While Solitude is a holistic concept, many of its solutions can be implemented independently – and some are already available today. These projects are our way of thinking out loud. Our aim is to present high-level concepts that can form a basis for discussion and be further developed in collaboration with the industry. We see Solitude as a new opportunity for the future,” she adds. 

Categories: FPSO Norway Vessels Europe Floating Production FLNG Design Engineering

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