The genius robotics upstarts that are making energy giants safer

Oil and gas exploration and production are up against increasingly complex and restrictive working conditions. To meet the challenges, improve operator safety and protect the environment, Total launched ARGOS, the oil and gas industry's first robotics challenge, in 2013. An adventure for the competing teams and an opportunity for the winner, it's a great example of innovation by Total.

As self-driving cars, surgical robots and automated laboratories and assembly lines all attest, robots are already widely used in a number of areas. Despite lingering obstacles — especially cost — a robotics boom is definitely expected in the years ahead, bringing with it a host of technological innovations and multiple functions.

Working conditions at oil and gas production sites are increasingly extreme and challenging. Bitter cold, desert heat, deepwater environments and isolated offshore and onshore sites are new production challenges that have to be met to keep operators safe, protect the environment and improve overall facility efficiency. All while finding ways to cut costs, too.

Mission: Safety — A robot from the ARGOS Challenge could keep operators safer at highly complex oil and gas sites. Visit the Shetland Gas Plant in the United Kingdom, part of the offshore Laggan-Tormore development.

Excelling in safety

In the view of Daniel Plathey, vice president, research and development in Total's Exploration & Production segment, "R&D's job is to prepare Total's industrial future. Naturally, that involves geosciences, which underpin everything we do. But there's also a sizeable safety and environmental component. We must never forget that in our business we handle and process hazardous substances."

Those specifications are exactly what led to the creation of the ARGOS1 Challenge: Namely, capturing the synergies among enhanced safety, more efficient operations and potentially lower technical costs. "We often tend to treat safety and costs, efficiency and environmental protection as being at odds," says Daniel Plathey, "But that's a mistake. At Total, we're convinced that the more effectively we manage risks in our operations, the more we'll optimize our capital expenditure and the more affordable energy will be." It's a virtuous circle in which robotics has many advantages to offer.

Robotics isn't research and development's "core business" at Total. "We didn't know much about it," admits the R&D executive. "We wanted to send a message to our ecosystem that oil and gas needs robotics for our sites."

That was the genesis of the ARGOS challenge in 2013, a competition to build autonomous robots that can operate in high-risk or extreme environments and eliminate the need for human intervention. "We saw a challenge as a way of dipping our toes into robotics, to find how something that was successful in other industry sectors could improve the way we work in oil and gas," says Daniel Plathey. "This open innovation contest put us in touch with the best start-ups and university teams, by posing them an open-ended question. The idea was to move faster, testing several robotics solutions at the same time."

• For more on the subject: Pangea, High Performance Computing for 3D Oilfield Modeling

Mutually beneficial

Five teams, selected out of 31 projects, took on the challenge. They participated in three, increasingly daunting competitions. "For the last step we wanted a prototype that was as operational as possible. The robots designed had to be ATEX2 certifiable, that is, able to operate in a potentially explosive atmosphere," recounts Daniel Plathey.

So the robots had to be able to perform routine tasks such as inspections, readings or checks, plus step in in emergency situations calling for minimal or no direct human intervention. All without creating any static electricity sparks and while moving around in infrastructure ergonomically designed for people, not robots. As far as Daniel Plathey is concerned, "The specifications were a real challenge for the teams competing. Paradoxically, less for technical reasons or because of the robot's intrinsic function, but simply because it was a first in the oil and gas sector."

Despite the difficulties and requirements, competitors are motivated. Total budgeted up to 600,000 euros ($642,000) for each of them and will award a 500,000 euro grant to the winner, which will continue to work with the company on a future project. The next step is to conduct a pilot project at a site under real-life conditions. It is "a way to put into practice everything learned from the challenge," explains E&P's vice president, R&D.

The win-win ARGOS initiative makes Total more agile. "Total has deployed all the new technologies that have pushed the envelope in exploration and production, for instance in the deep offshore. Revisiting the way we work and conducting research differently is also a form of innovation," points out Daniel Plathey. "With the ARGOS challenge, we took the first step in open innovation. It disrupted our culture and the way we work. Today, we've realized that we must make a habit of seeking out new ideas and skills wherever they are. It's one of the keys to our future efficiency."

Ideas that might have seemed straight out of the pages of science fiction just a few years ago are now genuine possibilities. Examples include spacing out inspections performed by people, improving safety and automating increasingly complex facilities. "We look at the major economic sectors that are innovating or have innovated in robotics, such as space, defense, medicine and automotive manufacturing. They did extensive research and we're evaluating how we can leverage their results to be more efficient. For instance, how could we incorporate a totally automated space lab into our installations, because robots will be better than us at performing certain tasks," says Daniel Plathey.

• For more on the subject: Total's Innovation-Boosting Production Pilots

Going digital

The oil and gas industry is continuing its digital transformation by embracing robotics, which creates safety, reliability and cost-saving opportunities. Those are the activity's key factors. The ARGOS challenge built internal momentum at Total and helped it view robotics as a way to develop opportunities and innovations and cut costs. However, exploring robotics "has a cost and commits us to a certain path," warns Daniel Plathey. "Now we must learn from the ARGOS challenge and figure out what the best applications for robotics technologies are."

ARGOS is already a success, and some Total affiliates have volunteered to host the future production pilot. "We've got the ball rolling," says a pleased Daniel Plathey, "and robotics will help drive our future technological leadership."

Such leadership encourages listening. "Smaller players such as start-ups and university teams are real partners. We realized that little things can make a big difference at our big industrial facilities. It's humbling." But, he concludes, "It's really great to work with robotics teams, who are just as enthusiastic as we are. We gave them a 'playground' and an issue that intrigued them. The idea was to understand one another — and it worked."

Read more: link

1 Autonomous Robot for Gas and Oil Sites.

2 ATEX is the E.U. term for EXplosive ATmosphere. It's a safety standard applicable to hazardous areas: zone 1 in direct contact with an explosive gas and zone 2 in indirect contact near zone 1. The European Union directive requires all facility managers to manage the risks of explosion in such atmospheres, just as they do any other occupational hazard.

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