Autonomous Robots & Drones in the Oil and Gas Industry

The oil and gas industry is a product of the industrial revolution and has been around ever since. However, as we progress towards the age of autonomous robotics and artificial intelligence, every industry must follow in order to keep up with the demand.

There are more than a thousand oil plants in the world, many of which are underground and all of which are dangerous. Working in and maintaining these rigs puts humans in constant danger and can get very expensive. This is where the field of autonomous robotics steps in.

Just as all the other sectors of production, the oil and gas industry has also greatly benefitted from the recent advancements in autonomous robotic technology. These new robots help maintain remote oil rigs, streamline the production process, and greatly reduce the dangers of working with large amounts of explosive content. There are three distinct categories of autonomous robots currently in use: Overground, Underwater, and Snake Robots.

Above Ground Autonomous Robots

Oil and gas refineries above ground face a daily danger of leaks and explosions which can be fatal to many. This is why thorough leak checks of the facilities are regularly required. These checks, however, can get very difficult to perform on a regular basis since oil refineries are often large, spanning thousands of acres. This is where autonomous drone technology can be of help.

Autonomous drones are currently used in the oil and gas industry in order to carry out regular and thorough pipeline inspections and prevent any leaks or dangers. These drones can be operated in autonomous mode, where they fly in a predetermined search pattern around the area, or in controller mode, where they can be flown by a human in order to perform a deeper inspection.

Apellix is a Florida based company which, in partnership with NASA, has developed drones that can effectively perform Ultrasonic thickness measurements high above the ground. These drones can withstand winds of up to 12 knots at a height of 100 meters. They are also customisable for each oil rig through a configuration protocol which allows it to rate wall thickness. A very useful feature of the Apellix software is that the data collected by the drone is then transformed into a 3D map of the wall which can be easily interpreted by the facility operators.

Underwater Autonomous Submersible Robots

About 20% of all the oil rigs in the world are underwater. These rigs are much harder to operate and even more difficult to maintain. Not to mention that the human risks of maintaining these underwater facilities are off the charts. In the depths of the ocean is where a majority of autonomous robotics can be seen helping to maintain these enormous oil plants.

One of the leading companies in underwater autonomous Submersible robotics is Houston Mechatronics. They branched off from NASA and now produce robots such as the Aquanaut which are a hybrid system with both Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) functionalities. Houston Mechatronics’ Aquanaut is a dual-mode system. In autonomous mode, it can swim around with the use of control thrusters and perform all sorts of inspections around the seabed. In ROV mode the robot transforms to get an extra pair of arms that can be used to do any maintenance required around the facility.

What makes the technology unique is the myriad of sensors packed in the small body of the robot which not only allows it to inspect the facility but also the environment around it. Even within AUV mode, the robot can be told to perform certain tasks with only a few clicks. The communication between the robot and the ground include are acoustic communications which another unique feature. With much potential for added functionality, Houston Mechatronics is just getting started with the Aquanaut.

Snake Robotics

The overground and underwater autonomous robots surely provide many advancements to the oil and gas industry. However, they do lack one crucial functionality: the ability to reach tight spaces. There are many places within oil rigs that are too small for humans to enter and cannot be inspected by drones or the Aquanaut. This is where Snake Robots can come in handy.

Snake Robots are hybrid and can be made to work aboveground and underwater. Their main function is to provide maintenance to oil and gas facilities by being able to handle machinery and reach tight spaces to prevent any leaks. All snake robots come with the added arms that can be changed into grippers, or other tools, that can help with maintenance.

In the overground sector companies such as Sarcose Robotics are making giant strides towards building lightweight snake robots that can reach almost any nook and corner. On the underwater front, the Eelume Subsea Intervention Company is creating highly futuristic Snake robots that double as arms for operating and fixing machinery underwater.

The future of Robotics in the Oil and Gas Industry

Combustible fuels are still going to be a large part of the world economy, at least in the near future. Therefore, autonomous robotics still has much scope to advance in that industry.

In terms of overground inspection, the main technology being used is aerial robotics. Therefore, as drone technology matures, so will overground robots for oil rigs. Even though the drones fly on their own, they currently require constant monitoring, since they are an unstable system at such great heights. The immediate next step for them will be to introduce true autonomy to the drones through feedback control. In the long run, these drones can also be equipped with arms and tools to provide maintenance along with inspection.

On the underwater front, there are still many research groups trying to find the perfect harmonic mechanical system that can provide inspection and maintenance to oil rigs under the sea. Since underwater plants are much more dangerous, the long term aim for these research groups is to eliminate human intervention altogether and operate fully autonomously.

With new advancements right around the corner, the oil and gas industry is ripe for a robotic revolution.

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