Collaborative projects with emergent technology developers and leading universities are already producing results
With new technologies bringing the promise of increased benefits and solutions for the oil and gas sector, the UK’s Oil and Gas Innovation Centre (OGIC) is looking to increase investment in emerging technologies and encourage more open collaboration across the sector.
Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) have been used in the offshore sector for some time. However, advancements in autonomous robotics technology with the ability to learn, adapt and make decisions independent of human control, is providing enhanced solutions and benefits for subsea operations.
A recent McKinsey study into disruptive technologies estimates that by 2025 RAS technologies will have a total impact on the global markets of between US$1.9 and US$6.4 trillion per annum. The report also highlighted the potential competitive advantage of such technologies for early adopters, who could gain quality, cost and speed advantages over competitors.
Innovate UK believes there is great potential for new applications and opportunities to grow as technical capabilities extend and the energy sector gains an increased understanding of the potential gains. With advanced Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) helping to reduce health and safety risks, provide cost efficiencies, and create new exploration opportunities, there is now a growing trend within the subsea sector to move towards greater utilisation of this technology, in particular autonomous vehicles.
Trends in “swarming” robots that can work together alongside humans and quickly sense and react to their environment, has the potential to revolutionise search and rescue operations, as well as performing operational tasks more efficiently in hazardous deep water environments. “Underwater swarming robots make use of many Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) working together collaboratively. This collaboration allows robots with different capabilities to work together making best use of the sensing and actuation resources that are available. For example, an AUV with a particular capability can come in to inspect a specific area of interest whilst the other robots continue with their survey. The different robots can feed their findings back separately whilst they have been working in parallel speeding up the overall survey or inspection task,” explained Dr Keith Brown, Associate professor in the Oceans Systems Laboratory at Heriot-Watt University.
By making the AUVs smaller, without requiring all of the sensors on all of the vehicles, the overall costs will be lower and one vehicle failing does not necessarily cause the end of the mission. The benefit of enabling companies to inspect and assess the integrity of subsea infrastructures in safer and more effective ways, is also of increasing interest to the renewable energy sector, as well as the decommissioning industry.
RAS to be first To ensure that companies within the oil and gas sector and the wider energy industry have every opportunity to access RAS technologies, OGIC is identifying and investing in research and development (R&D) projects in this emerging field. By connecting oil and gas companies with relevant academic expertise in Scottish universities, as well as providing part funding for viable projects, OGIC is helping to ensure that real industry problems can be explored and resolved using cutting-edge technologies. A recent project facilitated by OGIC in this area involved an R&D partnership between Heriot-Watt University and the sonar and underwater systems company, Hydrason Solutions.
In collaboration with OGIC, Heriot-Watt University’s Ocean Systems Lab (OSL) worked with Hydrason Solutions on the development of a specialist system to improve the maintenance and repair operations of subsea structures, specifically pipelines and power cables.
Applying its extensive knowledge in underwater sensing technologies, OSL was able to make a significant advance in improving low frequency (LF) sonar technology for offshore oil and gas survey work. This has the potential to provide enhanced information for key challenges in flow assurance, condition-based maintenance and integrity management.
The development of new sensors, such as the wideband sonar, provides new information through intelligent application of bio-inspired sensing and processing. Accessing the quality of information in the harsh subsea environments will improve the sensing and operational capabilities of the new generations of subsea robots currently being developed for use in the offshore energy sector.
OGIC chief executive Ian Philips commented on the recent collaboration between Heriot-Watt University and Hydrason: “Collaborations, such as that of Heriot-Watt University and Hydrason Solutions, have the potential to bring further cost efficiencies for the sector. However, more importantly, collaborations also enable increased access to expertise to find innovative solutions and improved processes for current industry challenges.
“We are seeing real benefits of such collaborations with the projects we are facilitating for the sector, and we are keen to increase the number of projects OGIC is doing with emerging technologies – especially in robotics and autonomous systems, which is generating a lot of interest in the sector right now.”
By facilitating access to R&D facilities, such as the OSL at Heriot-Watt University, and supporting projects with part funding, companies are getting the opportunity to do more feasibility studies and accelerate concepts to the development stage, where prototypes and field-testing can be explored.
Chris Capus, CEO of Hydrason Solutions Limited, said: “For Hydrason, the collaborative project sponsored by OGIC has pushed development of our sensors towards lower frequencies, which are required for oil and gas infrastructure. We were pleased with the progress made whilst working with the team at Heriot-Watt University. Continuing this development, our current focus is to extend the operating depth for our systems to 3000m to meet the mounting challenges of deep-water oil and gas exploitation.
“Together these advancements will provide new sensing capabilities for pre- and post-installation surveys looking into the sub-bottom sediments and for a greater range of subsea structures for the oil and gas and renewables energy sector.”
Dr Brown emphasised the need for investment and collaboration across the energy industry: “We are working to increase the use of autonomous vehicles in the offshore energy sector, as it will help the wider industry, the environment and, ultimately the consumer in several ways. The project from OGIC has helped us to work with Hydrason Solutions to create a specialist system to be used for analysis and to tackle issues with assessing the condition of subsea assets. The project has been valuable in bringing our organisations together to determine what is achievable.”
Active engagement With emerging technologies providing faster and more efficient solutions for current industry challenges, it is vital that the sector does not ignore the potential value of investing in niche markets, such as robotics and autonomous systems. This technology can provide new opportunities for deepwater exploration and improved processes that are not only safer and faster, but also more cost effective to deploy.
Within Scottish universities, there is a wealth of expertise and facilities dedicated to advancing new technologies and innovative solutions for the sector. However, the greater challenge may not be finding the investment, but changing the mindset of the industry to share knowledge and be more open to the benefits of shared resources through collaborative projects.
With the objective of driving innovation in the sector, OGIC continues to actively engage with those companies that see the benefit of investing in these important niche market technologies. A continued investment and collaboration in these projects is not only vital for the future of the sector, but also vitally important to maintain Scotland’s lead in innovative technologies for the oil and gas sector - both in the UK and globally.