Robots and the future of oil&gas workforce

 By Criselda Diala-McBride

With the multi-million-dollar North Sea project underway, the oil and gas sector will see its first ever autonomous robot deployed in an oil rig this year. As the industry continues to tap innovation, robotics could have a profound impact on the industry’s occupational health and safety records…

While there had been predictions of robot revolution transforming workplaces of the future, it was only recently that the oil and gas sector realized its robotics ambitions are no longer a pipe dream.
In April 2018, it was reported that a pilot project, which seeks to deploy an autonomous robot at a Total oil rig in the North Sea, is underway. The $5.32-million project is believed to be the first of its kind for the oil and gas sector and is expected to be revolutionary in its attempt to maximize human capital by eliminating the need to assign workers to dangerous and tedious assignments offshore.
As Dave Mackinnon, head of technology and innovation as Total E&P UK, said: “Robots represent an exciting new paradigm for the oil and gas offshore industry,” as they have the potential to move humans out of “dangerous or repetitive situations.”

Why now is the time to deploy robots

Using robots in oil rigs has become more relevant than ever, as oil companies explore reserves outside the conventional oilfields. One factor contributing to the need to scout the seas for oil is the world’s rapidly increasing demand for petroleum. OPEC estimates that by 2040, crude oil demand will reach 111.1 million barrels per day (mb/d), compared with 95.4 mb/d in 2016.
Currently, offshore drilling represents a significant portion of the world’s overall oil supply. In a report published in 2016, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that offshore production accounted for almost 30 percent, or 27 million barrels, of the world’s crude oil output. The top five offshore oil producers are Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Mexico, Norway and the United States.

Autonomous offshore robot a world-first

This sector appears to show no signs of any let-up, as there are over 380 offshore projects around the world that are either planned or in early stage, attracting investments of more than $ 700 billion between 2017 and 2025. Once completed, these projects are expected to contribute around 8.9 billion barrels per day of crude and 56 billion cubic feet per day of gas to global inventories.
But drilling for oil in the deepwater also means workers have to maintain rigs on-site. Considering that many of the offshore platforms can be found in remote and dangerous locations, with hostile and unpredictable weather conditions, it is no surprise that robots are being considered as a viable component in companies’ occupational health and safety strategy.

What robots mean for health and safety

The human cost of working in oil platform is extremely high. While safety records in recent years have dramatically improved, working conditions in oil rigs are naturally hazardous and accidents can be fatal.
In the United Kingdom, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), estimates that there are around 30,400 people employed in the offshore industry in 2016, compared with 32,700 in 2015. In U.K. oil rigs, hydrocarbon releases (HCR), also known as oil and gas leaks, are a primary hazard management concern. According to the HSE, the “unintended releases of petroleum gas or liquids from an offshore installation” could result in either fire or explosion or cause a significant risk or personal injury.
In a report published last year, Frost & Sullivan underscored the growing importance of drones and robots in the oil and gas sector, specifically in conducting inspection and surveillance work.

Eni's Clean Sea underwater drone

“It is highly likely that in the future, oil and gas operations will be autonomously run by robots, replacing field workers,” the market intelligence firm noted. “With the combined effort of drones and robots, upstream operational cost can be significantly reduced. The drone and robotic market has tremendous growth potential, with an estimated market size of US$ 81.4 billion by 2022.”
Frost & Sullivan also believes that in the next five years, the industry’s investment in drones and robotics will increase to 28 percent from the current 15 percent. As well as surveillance and inspection, the applications of robotics in oil rigs may include remote sensing, underwater welding, operation and maintenance, and leak detection.
Not only will robotics improve health and safety on platforms, it could also help the industry hone the potential of its workforce. By assigning repetitive, mundane tasks to robots, companies can free up their workers for training, so they can match the agility of an innovative and fast-evolving sector.

READ MORE: Drones for the deep by Nicholas Newman

about the author
Criselda Diala-McBride
Dubai-based journalist with 20 years of experience writing and editing finance, aviation, tourism, retail, technology, property and oil and gas articles for a range of print and online publications.