May 2016 /// Vol 237 No. 5


What's new in production

I, Robot

Don Francis, Contributing Editor

Science fiction buffs out there may recall Isaac Asimov’s science-fiction novel of this name (later a movie), which was notable for his eventually-to-become-famous formulation of the Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law;
  3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws are said to have established the average citizen’s basic perception of robots in modern times (the book was first published in 1950). They certainly run counter to sci-fi fare of the era, portraying robots as malevolent machines easily escaping human control.

Not only are today’s robots firmly under human control—flying robots (drones) being a possible exception—their masters are also commanding them to do things involving oil and gas operations. But before we get into that, let’s first state that robotics involves automated machines that can take the place of humans in dangerous environments. By the way, they’re almost never anthropomorphic, which is good news to those of us visualizing Gort as a tool pusher having a bad day.

ROVs and AUVs quickly come to mind, when one contemplates robotic functions in the oil field. In Robotics and Autonomous Systems (2016), A. Shula and H. Karki use an interesting term to describe their function: ROVs work on the general principle of “teleoperation.” A slave system, in this case the ROV, interacts with a hazardous, extreme environment, and a master system, in this case the human operator, is placed at a safe and comfortable location. Essentially, the teleoperation principle lies in projecting the cognitive and manipulative capacity of the human operator to the remote field from the control center (usually situated onshore).

“In such a human–machine cooperation model, most of the cognitive ability to make decisions will come from the human operator,” the authors say, “and access to critical objects, data collection, inspection, manipulation and feedback comes from robotic device-equipped suitable sensors. Therefore, it can be said that overall automation of oil and gas facilities can be further divided into many specific sub-problems, such as human–machine interface; data-signal transmission; resource allocation and task scheduling; navigation technologies; localization of the mobile robots and workspace objects; localization of AUVs in underwater conditions, inspection technologies and teleoperation, etc. Even after rightly and efficiently solving all these sub-problems, integration of all these subsystems is another challenge.”

Once called a “swimming socket wrench,” ROVs can trace their roots back to Howard Hughes, Jr. In the late 1950s, Hughes Aircraft Company developed its Manipulator Operated Robot (MOBOT) for the Atomic Energy Commission. Working on land, the robot performed tasks in environments too radioactive for humans.

Weighing 4,500 lb, with hydraulically powered steel claws and television camera eyes, MOBOT was linked by a 200-ft cable to the operator, who used pistol grips and levers to control it. In 1960, Shell Oil and Hughes Aircraft began modifying the landlocked MOBOT into one that could operate underwater. The result led to the ROV, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Fast-forward to the present day. Up the hall in the drilling department, Robotic Drilling Systems AS (RDS) has a fully electric and robotic drill floor under development that, they claim, will offer fast, seamless and human-free operation of pipe and tools on the drill floor. To achieve this, three major innovations had to be brought forward:

  • Electric drill floor machines, such as electric roughneck and electric pipe handler, to allow for precise operation;
  • A dynamic robot control system to allow for flexible operations;
  • A drill floor robot to replace manual operations.

To achieve a seamless system with good motion control, RDS has replaced the conventional hydraulic drill floor machines with a new generation of electrical machines or robots. In addition to avoiding hydraulic power units, the electric system is easier to install and integrate on the rig. As standard electric motors and gears are used, potentially the reliability will be higher, and the energy consumption will be significantly lower for electric robots.

For controlling the robots, a new software platform under development allows for cooperation between the robots and easy re-programming, if the drilling program suddenly needs to be changed. RDS says commands to the machines are brought to a higher level, where the operator tells the robot WHAT to do (e.g. “insert a new stand”) and not HOW to do it. The robot will program itself on the fly and operate together with the other machines—or robots—through an embedded anti-collision system. The control system allows the robots to operate autonomously, with the options for semi-automatic and remote control, if required in special operations. This will redefine the role of the driller, so that he can focus on the important drilling tasks, and not on pipe and tool handling.

Space doesn’t allow a full examination of the many ways that robotics is permeating oil field operations, in ways both big (ROVs) and small (nanotechnology). One thing is nearly certain: the arrival of technologies, such as nano-gadgets and the Internet of Things, is coinciding with the absolute requirement to operate safely in conditions ever more hostile to humans. For technologists, this is making robotics “where the action is” in the oil field. wo-box_blue.gif

The Authors ///

Don Francis DON@TECHNICOMM.COM / For more than 30 years, Don Francis has observed the global oil and gas industry as a writer, editor and consultant to companies marketing upstream technologies.

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