May 3, 2018 / 10:03 AM / 21 days ago

In U.S. Gulf, robots, drones take on dangerous offshore oil work

    By Liz Hampton
    HOUSTON, May 3 (Reuters) - At BP's        massive Thunder
Horse oil platform in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, a dog-sized robot
called Maggie uses magnetic tracks to creep along pipes
connecting the giant oil facility to the sea floor.
    Before MaggHD, dubbed "Maggie" by BP, the dangerous
inspection job was reserved for highly paid specialist
technicians who did their jobs while rappelling along the
platform.
    The energy industry has turned to robots and drones to cut
costs and improve safety in some of the world's tougher working
environments.
    Drones inspect gear high up on floating rigs. Robots crawl
underwater to test subsea equipment for microscopic metal
cracks. Remotely operated mini submarines can replace divers.
    Big oil producers such as BP and Statoil          are racing
to create the oilfields of the future, where smart devices
replace workers. They have the potential to cut costs, save
lives, and reduce the scope for human error.
    "This is going to change the way oil and gas does business,"
Carri Lockhart, senior vice president of offshore at Statoil
USA, said in an interview earlier this year, referring to the 
push towards autonomous gear and facilities. 
    
    MAGNETIC CRAWLERS 
    Maggie belongs to a group of devices known as magnetic
crawlers, which can move across rigs, platforms, and pipelines
above and below water using ultrasonic test devices and
high-definition cameras. They can cost $60,000 apiece.
    BP, the largest operator in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, piloted
Maggie on its Thunder Horse platform last year and expects to
roll out similar crawlers across all its Gulf of Mexico
platforms in coming years. 
    BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of
Mexico, which killed 11 people and was the largest accidental
release of oil into U.S. marine waters, underscored the dangers
of offshore work.  
    BP wants the robots "to remove individuals from being in
unsafe environments. The efficiencies we gain by collecting data
this way are significant. The safety factor is obvious," said
Dave Truch, a technology director in BP's Digital Innovation
Organization.
    Drones and crawlers can do inspections in about half the
time of rope access technicians, while placing fewer workers in
harm's way, executives at BP said this week.
    Other gadgets can reduce the need for shutdowns, which are
sometimes necessary for safe inspection of equipment by humans.
Drones can conduct inspections of flaring equipment, which burn
off dangerous gases at oil and gas production facilities,
without requiring a shutdown.
    Those shutdowns could last anywhere from five to 20 days,
said Iain Gault, a business development manager at Stork, an
energy maintenance unit of Fluor Corp.
    "We still can't do the physical work with a drone or
crawler, but the efficiency is gained by only putting people in
the field when needed," said Gault, who started his career in
oil and gas as a rope access technician, rappelling along the
sides of oil structures in the North Sea, nearly 30 years ago.
    The technology can be a "hard sell," because of the high
upfront cost, he added, estimating crawler rentals run between
$600 to $1,000 per day, excluding the cost of an operating
technician.
    Hiring technicians for drones is even more costly because
they require pilot's licenses, he added. 
    Companies that provide the inspection specialists for
offshore equipment say they are not worried about losing out to
robots and gadgets.
    "It is not a threat to jobs, but they change. We have to
adapt," said Ryan King, a technical sales representative for
Oceaneering International, an offshore services and equipment
provider.
    "We're at a point now where big data is helping optimize
inspection programs, so we don't have to send guys into the
field," King said.
    Drones and crawlers may be a stepping stone. Norwegian oil
producer Statoil is eying an unmanned, remotely operated
production concept. Noble Drilling and General Electric Co
       this year launched a partnership to produce a fully
digitized drilling vessel, work the companies said paves the way
for an autonomous drilling fleet.
    "We have the technology. It's just a matter of getting these
projects executed. We're not there yet on unmanned platforms for
deepwater, but it's coming," said Statoil's Lockhart.

 (Reporting by Liz Hampton; Editing by Gary McWilliams, Simon
Webb and James Dalgleish)
  
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