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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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The Growing Importance Of Robots In The Oil And Gas Industry

  • During the global pandemic, the oil and gas industry aggressively embraced robotics in an effort to increase resilience and limit disruptions to production.
  • In the offshore industry, in particular, there is heavy investment in robotics to improve safety and some majors are looking to launch autonomous operations.
  • Today, robots can be used in the planning phase of new projects for conducting aerial surveys, in the exploration period for seismic surveys, and during everyday oil operations.

With the hot topic of artificial intelligence (AI) being talked about in every industry and all around the world, it’s important to understand how it plays into the oil and gas industry. Robotics and AI have long featured in the energy industry, but it was only during the Covid pandemic that they gained much more attention for their potential use on unmanned platforms. So, coming out of the pandemic, just how will robotics, AI, and similar technologies shape the future of oil and gas?

There are several reasons that companies are looking to robotics to modernize their oil and gas operations. Firstly, the Covid pandemic made it abundantly clear that if workers cannot work on oil and gas rigs then operations come to a halt. But if unmanned machines are in place to carry out some of the core functions of the platforms, then this may not be the case in the future. Secondly, worker health and safety have long been taken for granted, with rig workers often having to carry out perilous tasks due to a lack of a better alternative. However, robots have the potential to be used for the most dangerous activities to reduce the risk to human lives. And, thirdly, the mechanization and digitalization of activities could ultimately reduce costs and improve efficiency. 

Following the pandemic, U.S. firms Exxon Mobil, Baker Hughes, and Chevron, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, Norway’s Equinor, France’s Total Energies, and the U.K.’s Shell and BP all increased their investments in robotics. And several countries around the world invested in research and development into robotics and associated technologies. In 2022, in Japan, the Nippon Foundation financed the development of an automatic inspection system, using robots, to identify and predict hazards in offshore facilities. And in a German trade fair, two companies - Boston Dynamics and ANYbotics - introduced robot dogs, showing the potential for the use of robotics in rig inspections. 

And since the post-pandemic reinvigoration, we have seen several advances in robotics technology that could massively improve the future of oil and gas operations. A December 2022 report from GlobalData showed that although robotics have been used in oil and gas for decades, the recent rise of AI, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT) have helped advance robotics for more expansive use in the industry. GlobalData highlights that the robotics industry was valued at $52.9 billion in 2021 and it is expected to reach $568 billion by 2030, with a CAGR of 30 percent. 

There has been significant progress in the field of modular and customizable robots in recent years, which is expected to lead to the deployment of more robots in the industry. They can now be used in the planning phase of new projects for conducting aerial surveys, in the exploration period for seismic surveys, and during everyday oil operations across a range of tasks. Anson Fernandes, Oil and Gas Analyst at GlobalData explained, “A huge number of robots are now being deployed in oil and gas operations, including terrestrial crawlers, quadrupeds, aerial drones, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).” He added, “Robots have applications across the oil and gas industry in various tasks ranging from surveys, material handling, and construction to inspection, repair, and maintenance.” 

Last month, TotalEnergies announced it was partnering with Rockwell Automation to develop a robot fleet management system for its offshore oil and gas platforms. The two firms plan to begin testing unmanned operations at a single offshore asset in mid-2023. The hope is to eventually launch autonomous operations, with camera-equipped drones being used for maintenance and safety inspections and remote-controlled automation systems. 

TotalEnergies has been investing in robotics for the last decade and recent advances could mean that the oil major will soon be able to roll out automated technologies across several of its oil and gas operations. Matt Graves, director at Kalypso, a Rockwell Automation company, stated, “Because of the remote and often harsh environments in which oil and gas companies operate offshore, there is a strategic objective to minimize employee exposure on these platforms.” Graves added, “Over the years, this has been achieved by improving the design and automating equipment. But there are still tasks that need to be performed manually, many of which involve observations by operators. For five years, TotalEnergies has been investigating the use of ground robots to undertake some of these manual tasks and the next step was to develop a control system to operate these robots remotely. For that, they turned to Kalypso.” 

The use of robotics in oil and gas has long been discussed, with many energy companies around the world investing heavily in the development of new automated technologies in recent years. And with innovations in AI, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things, many firms have come one step closer to making their dream of an automated oil platform a reality. Investment in research and development, as well as the rollout of robotics in oil and gas operations, is expected to rise significantly over the next decade and beyond, with automation becoming much more common.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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