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Offshore oil and gas has long been known as a cautious sector when it comes to new technology. Production systems are business-critical and complex enough as it is, so when considering new tech, operators must balance the potential benefits against the extra costs and operational complications they may introduce. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean the industry is blind to the advantages of 21st century innovation, and offshore firms are investing heavily across the digital ecosystem, from big data to augmented reality.

Robotic systems are also gaining traction on offshore platforms, with autonomous or remotely-controlled drones increasingly used to carry out tasks, including asset inspection and safety-critical activities, that would have previously been done by their human counterparts.

“Demand for robots is revving up at a fast pace, due to robots becoming progressively cheaper, smarter, more flexible, and easier to train,” noted a GlobalData analysis in June last year. “The oil and gas industry has geared up to deploy robotics across a wide range of applications in the upstream, midstream and downstream segments, primarily to drive productivity and efficiency amid volatility in crude prices.”

Skarv set to become robotic testing ground under new partnership

As with any novel technology being assessed for its disruptive potential, the offshore sector continues to run trials to work out exactly how and where robots can be meaningfully deployed to solve problems and boost productivity.

In February, industrial AI firm Cognite announced a new robotics collaboration with Norway-based exploration and production (E&P) company Aker BP. The project will see a range of robots trialled at the Skarv field, Aker BP’s northernmost producing field in the Norwegian Sea, which is served by a production ship and floating production, storage and offloading unit, representing one of the world’s largest offshore gas processing plants.

“Cognite is shaping the digital future by liberating data and powering a sustainable, digital transformation of the world’s largest, most vital industries,” says Cognite CEO Dr John Markus Lervik. “We are very excited to partner with Aker BP to demonstrate value-capture through robotics.” 

Cognite is shaping the digital future by liberating data and powering a sustainable, digital transformation of the world’s largest, most vital industries

Throughout 2020, the partners plan to conduct several tests using robots to gauge their performance in autonomous inspection, data capture, and automatic report generation, with assessed activities potentially including aerial and underwater inspections, responding to leaks, high-risk tasks and facilitating offshore telepresence for remote staff.

“Robotics technology has evolved enough to be operationalised, and Aker BP and Cognite are ready to show how robotics combined with liberated data can improve efficiency, work processes and HSE [health, safety and environment],” says Cognite data scientist Elias Bjorne.

“Skarv has smart, strong leadership and is very technology-oriented. New technology can be tested fast. Hurdles include how to introduce the robotics technology into work processes in an efficient manner. Having actual people in operations to spar with and willing to try innovative solutions makes this kind of work a lot easier.”

Among the more radical systems set to be trialled at Skarv are drones equipped with lidar (light radar) to produce highly accurate scans of offshore infrastructure. And then there’s Spot, Boston Dynamics’ highly advanced quadraped robot, which has become something of a celebrity in robotics circles for its uncanny sense of balance on its four legs. Having already tested Spot’s mobility in simulated oil and gas environments, Cognite is looking forward to putting the system through its paces at Skarv. 

“[Spot] has an extremely elegant way of moving around,” says Bjorne. “It is certainly an impressive piece of technology to pair with our CDF [Cognite Data Fusion] software solutions.”

Robotics trial: setting the scope and capturing the data

While robots have been touted as a solution to a host of complex problems in the offshore environment, Cognite and Aker BP plan to move forward cautiously, starting with validating robots in the simpler visual inspection tasks. 

“We must learn to walk before we can run,” Bjorne says. “For that reason, we’re focusing on work that doesn’t need intervention. This includes visual inspection, gas monitoring, investigation in confined spaces and tank analysis. Workers are often sent offshore to perform simple visual maintenance tasks. Having a robot deployed offshore that the worker can log into and do the same inspection creates valuable time that can be repurposed.” 

“We see that a large range of inspection tasks are amenable to automation using mobile robotics,” adds Cognite software engineer and PhD candidate in autonomous robotics Johan Hatleskog. “Targeting this class of problems first serves as a springboard to complex tasks requiring interactions with the environment, for example maintenance and repair using robot manipulators.”

Having a robot deployed offshore that the worker can log into and do the same inspection creates valuable time that can be repurposed

Cognite and Aker BP are long-time partners; the E&P firm already uses Cognite’s aforementioned CDF software to provide near real-time data visualisation related to water contamination, and the partners are working on a machine learning-based ‘recommender’ system to identify the biggest drivers of high oil-in-water concentrations. The CDF software will also underpin the data generated during the trials, automatically organising and contextualising it for analysis by its users.

“This allows for data-driven decisions,” says Bjorne. “For example, applications that allow an operator to acquire all historical images from a corroded pipe, or having the robot provide analog sensor readings and connect this information to the respective asset.”

Hatleskog elaborates: “We also have a very nice loop here where the robots inform the CDF digital twin and also are informed by it, so the robot can use the 3D models in CDF for navigation. Equipment alerts triggered in CDF can be used to automatically trigger robot missions to check up on situations.”

Covid-19-related delay incoming?

Of course, there are very few projects ongoing today that aren’t affected in some way by the Covid-19 pandemic that is currently sweeping the globe, with more than four million confirmed cases at the time of writing.   

On 23 March, Aker BP provided an update on its investment programme, in light of the global outbreak, noting that it is “cancelling or postponing activities that are not necessary to maintain safe and stable operations”.

The update did not directly reference the robotics trial at Skarv, but it seems likely that the crisis will have an impact on the project’s timeline, although Aker BP did state that it will “continue to look for opportunities to reduce cost and improve efficiency across all its activities”.

Spot doesn’t get Covid-19 but will always need humans to do the best work

Aker BP declined to answer questions related to the robotics project.

Hatleskog, meanwhile, thinks the emergence of Covid-19 draws focus to the potential benefits of automation offshore and in other sectors. 

“Interestingly, the current situation highlights the need for the kind of automation these robotics projects can provide,” he says. “Spot doesn’t get Covid-19 but will always need humans to do the best work.”