Home > Uncategorized > Robots: The Future of the Oil Industry – Businessweek

Robots: The Future of the Oil Industry – Businessweek

NASA’s Mars rover may have something to teach the oil industry. Safely traversing the Red Planet while beaming data through space turns out to have a lot in common with exploring the deepest recesses of earth in search of crude oil and natural gas. Robotic Drilling Systems, a small Norwegian company that’s bent on developing a drilling rig that can think for itself, has signed an information-sharing agreement with NASA to discover what it might learn from Curiosity.

The company’s work is part of a larger futuristic vision for the energy industry. Engineers foresee a day when fully automated rigs roll onto a job site using satellite coordinates, erect 14-story-tall steel reinforcements on their own, drill a well, then pack up and move to the next site. “You’re seeing a new track in the industry emerging,” says Eric van Oort, a former Royal Dutch Shell executive who’s leading a new graduate-level engineering program focused on automated drilling at the University of Texas at Austin. “This is going to blossom.”

Robotic Drilling Systems, Norway

A Robotic Drilling Systems Rig

Apache (APA), National Oilwell Varco (NOV), and Statoil (STO) are among the companies working on technology that will take humans out of the most repetitive, dangerous, and time-consuming parts of oil field work. “It sounds futuristic,” says Kenneth Sondervik, sales and marketing vice president for Robotic Drilling Systems. He compares it to other areas that have become highly automated, such as auto manufacturing or cruise missile systems.

Until recently, robots have been a bit of a hard sell in an industry that has long relied on human ingenuity, says Mark Reese, president of rig solutions at National Oilwell Varco: “In the past, it’s been all about, ‘We need more and more people and experience, and that’s the only way to accomplish this task.’ ”

The 2010 BP (BP) disaster in the Gulf of Mexico helped shift attitudes, says Clay Williams, chief financial officer at National Oilwell Varco. Eleven men were killed when the Deepwater Horizon rig caught fire and sank. Statoil has projected that automation may cut in half the number of workers needed on an offshore rig and help complete jobs 25 percent faster, says Steinar Strom, former head of a research and development unit on automation at the Norwegian company.

Robotic Drilling Systems is designing a series of robots to take over the repeatable tasks now done by deckhands, roughnecks, and pipehandlers on a rig. Its blue, 10-foot-tall robot deckhand has a jointed arm that can extend about 10 feet, with 15 or so interchangeable hands of assorted sizes. The robot is anchored in place to give it better leverage as it lifts drill bits that weigh more than a ton and maneuvers them into place. The company is also collaborating with researchers at Stanford University on a three-fingered robot hand embedded with sensors that give it a touch delicate enough to pick up an egg without crushing it.

via Robots: The Future of the Oil Industry – Businessweek.

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