Getting ready for robot-operated oil rigs

Within the next decade or so, new oil and gas platforms could be operated by fleets of autonomous robots. Thanks to the ARGOS Challenge, Total's R&D teams have already started transforming its installations and designing the oil platform of the future, which will be safer, more compact and less costly.

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Laurent Pascal

Laurent Pascal

Laurent Pascal

Laurent Pascal

Richard Davies

Safer, simpler oil platforms for the future

Oil and gas exploration and production technology continues to evolve in leaps and bounds. This is true both for offshore operations designed to tap into resources in deep water (500-1,500 meters), ultra-deep water (1,500-3,000 meters) and abyssal water (more than 3,000 meters) and in isolated environments where a human presence represents a significant challenge especially for safety reasons.

Thanks to these developments, next-generation facilities will be simpler in design and more robust and reliable. And they will only require human intervention during short, scheduled periods, for maintenance purposes. Day-to-day operations will be handled by autonomous robots, controlled from remote operations rooms. As a result, these platforms will deliver economic viability with oil at $50 a barrel and meet very high safety and environmental standards, whether they are located in isolated forests or deserts, or in the open sea.

This is where the LNG-powered ships are being built, near Shanghai in China.

Richard Davies

May the best robot win

It was with these requirements in mind that the R&D team in Total's Exploration & Production business segment launched the ARGOS (Autonomous Robots for Gas & Oil Sites) Challenge in 2013. "The R&D Division decided to initiate open innovation projects in order to acquire innovative technologies in oil and gas," explains Jean-Michel Munoz, Next-Generation Facilities R&D Project Manager at Total. The competition brief was to design an autonomous robot capable of carrying out unrewarding or time-consuming tasks such as taking measurements, detecting anomalies and inspecting equipment while also meeting a key requirement — the ability to operate in a potentially explosive atmosphere, as defined in the European Union's ATEX1 regulations. Five teams from around the world participated in the challenge, which ended in May 2017 after a three-year period. "Taurob, an Austrian start-up backed by Germany's Technical University of Darmstadt, won the challenge hands down by presenting an already certified robot during the third and final phase of the competition," says Jean-Michel Munoz. The Vienna-based firm did benefit from extensive expertise in robotics; it has been producing the world's first remotely operated, ATEX-certified robot since 2012. "Taurob was well-known for its fire-fighting and mine-detection robots," adds the project manager. "The ARGOS Challenge gave it a doorway into oil and gas."

Laurent Pascal

Full-scale testing

In 2017, at the end of this first stage in the process, Total decided to address the issue of robotics for unmanned facilities by working toward three objectives: (i) developing robot technology to enable the commercial-scale production of machines that can operate in oil platform environments; ii) learning how to use this technology and implementing new operating procedures and methods; and (iii) acquiring data about the robots' reliability by conducting long-term trials in various situations.

With this in mind, Total and Taurob launched a project in March 2018 for the industrial scale-up of the robot that won the ARGOS Challenge. Sponsored by the OGTC2, the project will enable the creation of an autonomous, ATEX-compliant robot capable of detecting anomalies (such as leaks, hot spots and obstacles), as well as reading data and creating 3D maps. Dubbed OGRIP, for Offshore Ground Robot Industrial Pilot, this highly technical project is scheduled for completion in late 2019, when two robots will be deployed at the Total Shetland Gas Plant in the United Kingdom for a series of long-term tests in real-world conditions.

Richard Davies

To further the development of a range of suitable robots, a joint industry project (still sponsored by OGTC) was signed on July 23, 2019 with Norway-based oil, gas and wind energy company Equinor3 The aim is to design an ATEX-compliant autonomous robot capable of carrying out simple tasks, such as opening valves and taking samples. This new category of robots, which can interact physically with the equipment, is called OWCR for Offshore Work Class Robots. They are expected to be available from 2021. The range will then be extended to include robots capable of carrying out more complex tasks.

Saft, the world leader in advanced technology batteries and a Total affiliate since 2016, is also participating in the project. Its role is to design batteries that are compact, light and compatible with ATEX certification; can be charged rapidly; and can operate normally even at very cold temperatures — a major challenge in itself.

An equipment learning phase is currently being conducted at the Lacq facility in southwestern France (see video). "To understand its potential and its limitations, we're putting the robot in a life-like environment and learning how to control it," explains Jean-Michel Munoz. This phase also enables teams to debug the equipment, which is severely put to the test. The Lacq facility is ideal for full-scale tests like this, because it allows for the construction of dedicated infrastructure. It is much easier to fix or replace malfunctioning parts here than on a working oil platform.

Laurent Pascal

Multiple benefits

Through the ARGOS Challenge and the Next-Generation Facilities project, Total is sending a clear signal about its interest in robotics technology (particularly autonomous robots and drones), even if, as Jean-Michel Munoz points out, "robots are still in their infancy." The schedule for creating a fleet of operational machines spans less than a decade. And while we know that robots will not be the only technology used on the platforms of the future, they will nonetheless deliver benefits in at least three areas:

  • Safety: The use of robots will significantly minimize the need to send personnel to distant facilities using potentially risky transportation methods, such as helicopters and boats.
  • The environment: Platforms will be more compact and have a smaller carbon footprint and will therefore use fewer resources.
  • Cost: By reducing infrastructure, risks and logistics and eliminating the need for a permanent human presence onsite.

Tomorrow's oil and gas platforms will therefore be very different from today's. "Total's teams are hard at work on the architecture and technologies that will shape them," concludes Jean-Michel Munoz.

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1 ATEX is the European Union term for EXplosive ATmosphere. It also refers to the E.U. regulations applicable to hazardous areas: zone 1 in direct contact with an explosive gas and zone 2 in indirect contact near zone 1. Based on two E.U. directives (2014/34/EU or ATEX 95 and 1999/92/EC or ATE 137), the regulations require all facility managers to manage the risks of explosion in such atmospheres, just as they do any other occupational hazard.

2 The Oil & Gas Technology Centre is an organization based in Scotland that promotes innovation in North Sea oil and gas operations.

3 Formerly known as Statoil.

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