Oil and gas companies have embraced modernization in the last few years, with most oil majors introducing AI, machine learning, and other digital innovations to their operations. An area that is only just beginning to be appreciated is robotics. And one robotics company in the U.S. now appears to be ‘recession-proof', according to media sources, as it comes out of the pandemic better than it started. U.S. company Offshore Robotics has gained more and more attention over the last couple of years as its team of engineers design and manufacture robots to assist in oil operations. The firm operates alongside ARC Specialties, which builds the highly technical and precise machines.
Working on an oil rig can mean facing extremely dangerous conditions, with well-known disasters, as well as regular perilous activities, leading to the death of hundreds of rig workers over the last few decades. This is where the robotics industry comes in. Tech companies are now designing robots that can carry out some of the dirtiest and most dangerous activities on oil platforms so that humans don’t have to. Co-owner of Offshore Robotics, Dan Allford, believes that safety is the main demand driver for robotics, explaining “We're getting the robots to do the stuff that's dangerous,” he said. “If we hurt a robot, nobody cares.”
The robotics industry was thought to be worth approximately $45 billion in 2020. But this is just the start, as the sector is expected to grow at a CAGR of 28 percent between now and 2030. And it’s not just the U.S. that is investing in robots. As well as U.S. firms Exxon Mobil, Baker Hughes, and Chevron, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, Norway’s Equinor, France’s Total Energies, and the U.K.’s Shell and BP have all increased their investments in robotics.
And now Japan is upping its robotics game. At present, workers conduct daily patrol and emergency inspections on oil rigs, but Japanese firms Yokogawa and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are looking to change this. The Nippon Foundation, a non-profit grant-making organization, is funding the two companies to develop an automatic inspection system, using robots, which can identify and predict hazards in offshore facilities. Yokogawa has already carried out research and development into the technology needed to link a robot service platform with multiple robots, allowing them to perform the necessary activities.
One of the main challenges is reporting the data that the robots see, as human operators are needed to interpret the image and sound data accurately. In this case, the project will use an AI application to convert the data gathered by robots to then be interpreted. The companies believe the use of robots for online monitoring will help to reduce safety hazards for workers as well as help to identify any on-site concerns to be resolved quickly.
In Germany, at the annual Hannover Messe trade fair, two companies introduced their new robot dogs. Boston Dynamics’ Spot and ANYbotics’ ANYmal were developed to be used for rig inspections, using Norwegian firm Cognite’s AI software-as-a-service (SaaS). The robots gather scans, sensor data, and imaging from remote locations so they can be analyzed by workers. Norway is already using the AI SaaS technology to monitor and analyze its power grid, using drones, and it expects to utilize more inspection robots across energy projects in the future. As well as enhancing safety in operations, Cognite thinks it can also help to decrease travel-associated emissions by reducing the need to send workers to site.
Although robotics for oil and gas operations were developed long before the pandemic, recent innovations, as well as Covid-related restrictions for workers, have demonstrated the clear benefits that robotics, AI, and machine learning technologies can bring to the industry. Greater investment in robotics could help enhance safety in oil and gas operations, as well as help to improve efficiency, reduce emissions and cut costs.