Towards fully autonomous oil and gas platforms

The industry is moving towards autonomous operations and within 5–10 years we should have full automation, writes Håvard Devold at ABB’s Oil, Gas & Chemical Business

Autonomous iStock

Self-operating offshore platforms may be as much a part of the future as self-driving cars. Both application areas face similar hurdles, though legislation is a greater obstacle for oil and gas operators. A way forward is clear: platforms will be autonomous in the not-too-distant future.

In recent years, oil producers have increasingly adopted digital technologies to help with planning, operations and cost control. What may really change the game in the years ahead is a move towards autonomous systems enabled by digital technologies. Full autonomous operation of offshore facilities is anticipated in the next 5–10 years.

Drivers for digital change

Autonomous operations help make systems safer, more capable and reliable, as well as more cost-effective. Removing people from the process reduces the scope for errors and improves safety. Research suggests 80% of downtime is preventable, and half of this is due to operator errors. These errors cost the petrochemical industry US$20bn per year. Significant savings are also possible in other areas, such as energy use. Overall, it may be possible to reduce operational costs by as much as 30%.

Cost control is a major driver for autonomous operations, as alternative forms of energy are entering the market and diverting revenue away from oil and gas. The extent of this is a matter for debate, however, what is known is that oil prices fluctuate. For businesses to be sustainable in the long-term, oil producers need to ensure that production is profitable at around US$40 a barrel. Thus, autonomous operations may be perceived as more of a necessity than an optional requirement.

A stepwise approach

The introduction of autonomous operations is already happening, step by step. At the moment, autonomous operations are being used in control systems. Other technologies will follow suit, such as maintenance, for which digitalisation is starting to make inroads. There is an increased use of artificial intelligence and advanced analytics in this area, with much more anticipated in coming years. Robotic technology is also taking its first steps in the industry. Advanced robotics exist that are made specifically for the inspection of equipment. These robots can replace the manual inspection of facilities, including inside tanks and pipes, as well as other parts of the platform.

In the future, a range of robots, drones, augmented reality and virtual reality may come into play. If a fault, such as a leak, is suspected and needs to be pinpointed, it may be possible to send a drone on a scouting mission. ABB has several existing and upcoming projects for drones, with foreseen inclusion in unmanned and autonomous operations, and system capability to dispatch a drone for visual clarification.

Autonomous operations help make systems safer, more capable and reliable, as well as more cost-effective

Paving the way for autonomy

Much of the technology needed for fully autonomous operations already exists. The challenge lies in scaling-up operations. 

A prototype facility can be set up with relative ease. However, to put an autonomous system on a full-scale facility with more than 30,000 inputs and outputs adds another level of complexity.

The next step will involve testing the installations. ABB plans to install autonomous systems on some upcoming installations for test purposes, although these will not yet be enabled for full autonomy.

Much of the data coming from sensors is not consistent nor integrated across platforms, however, with further standardisation required. The Industrial Internet of Things is a powerful enabler here, comprising a large number of standards by which components can communicate.

Advances are also sought with cyber security, as many traditional cyber security best practices do not apply to industrial control systems, with some companies cautiously restricting data use, which can limit digital ecosystem potential.

Current work processes and business models may also progress. Oil and gas companies risk losing out to companies from other sectors that have already adapted to changing markets by embracing new business models that integrate information technology with operational technology. Over time, such changes may fundamentally change the industry, with corporate dominance evolving across different parts of the sector.

Much of the technology needed for fully autonomous operations already exists. The challenge lies in scaling-up operations

An innovative future awaits

Current legislation has been developed over many years based on manned operations, with a human presence required for many processes. With autonomous systems being installed to mirror conventional working on some new facilities, evidence that autonomous operations can be carried out safely is being accumulated and presented to regulators. Regulations may improve as soon as during the next decade, facilitating digital technology implementation and full autonomous operation of offshore platforms.

By Håvard Devold, Group Vice-President Digital, ABB Oil, Gas & Chemical Business

Image credit | iStock