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Technology Update: Energy Industry Using Robots, Drones to Improve Safety

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Robots and drones are making their way into the energy industry to handle jobs in harsh environments in an effort to reduce costs, boost efficiency, improve safety and save lives.

For example, BP where safety is a front-and-center issue after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 people, is using a dog-sized robot to inspect its Thunder Horse platform in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. “Maggie”, as the robot is dubbed, is equipped with strong rare-Earth magnets and a high-definition camera, and creeps along pipes connecting the giant oil facility to the sea floor.  The robot’s inspection work is also complemented by drones with cameras that capture the smallest details. According to BP executives, robots and drones can perform inspections in roughly half the time it would take people to do it, and at the same time remove people from unsafe dangerous offshore environments. Before Maggie, dangerous inspection jobs were reserved for highly paid specialist technicians who did their jobs while rappelling along the platform.

“The efficiencies we gain by collecting data this way are significant. The safety factor is obvious,” Dave Truch, a technology director in BP’s Digital Innovation Organization (DIO), told Reuters.

BP is also considering programs similar to Maggie at its neighboring Na Kika, Mad Dog, and Atlantis platforms.

Maggie belongs to a group of devices known as magnetic crawlers, which can move across rigs, platforms, and pipelines above and below water using ultrasonic test devices and high-definition cameras. They can cost $60,000 per unit.

BP also uses robots and drones at its Cherry Point refinery in Washington State where robots inspect vessels such as the hydrocracker reactor by using ultrasound technology to spot microscopic cracks in the vessel walls. The robot has reduced inspection time to just one hour from the 23 man-hours people had to physically spend inside the hydrocracker unit during a planned shutdown.  

Companies that provide the inspection specialists for offshore equipment say they are not worried about losing out to robots and gadgets. “It is not a threat to jobs, but they [jobs] will change,” Ryan King, a technical sales representative for Oceaneering International, an offshore services and equipment provider, told Reuters. “We have to adapt. “

Indeed drones and crawlers may be just the beginning. Norwegian oil producer Statoil is eyeing an unmanned, remotely operated production concept. Noble Drilling and General Electric Company this year launched a partnership to produce a fully digitized drilling vessel, work the companies say will pave the way for an autonomous drilling fleet.

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