How robots and drones make offshore oil jobs in the US Gulf safer

Technology can make every job safer, even those in the highly flammable and risky oil and gas exploration business.
7 May 2018

New technology is making offshore oil explorations and operations safe. Source: Shutterstock

Offshore oil explorations aren’t very safe, but they offer highly paid jobs to those willing to put their life on the line – quite literally – to help discover the viscous black fluid powering humanity’s mega-machines.

However, for quite some time now, oil and gas companies (with some pressure from citizens and regulators alike), have been working on making the industry safer.

A new article by Reuters shed some light on how technology is helping companies make dangerous offshore oil work safer.

London-based BP, for example, at its Thunder Horse oil platform in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico uses a dog-sized robot called Maggie uses magnetic tracks to creep along pipes connecting the giant oil facility to the sea floor.

Fondly known as Maggie by BP, the device formally known as MaggHD, helps companies make one job out of a couple hundred in the industry, safer.

Previously, the dangerous inspection job was reserved for highly paid specialist technicians who did their jobs while rappelling along the platform.

Although just one example, the MaggHD isn’t the only device that is helping the industry. It’s also not the only kind of tech-powered device. Drones inspect gear high up on floating rigs. Robots crawl underwater to test subsea equipment for microscopic metal cracks. Remotely operated mini submarines can replace divers.

Big oil producers such as BP and Statoil are racing to create the oilfields of the future, where smart devices replace workers. They have the potential to cut costs, save lives, and reduce the scope for human error.

“This is going to change the way oil and gas does business,” Carri Lockhart, Senior Vice President of Offshore at Statoil USA, said in an interview earlier this year, referring to the push towards autonomous gear and facilities.

BP, which has been trialing MaggHD at its Thunder Horse platform since last year, wants the robots “to remove individuals from being in unsafe environments. 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 told Reuters.

Drones and crawlers can do inspections in about half the time of rope access technicians while placing fewer workers in harm’s way, executives at BP said this week.

However, some believe that the technology can be a hard sell at some organizations because of the costs involved. Crawler rentals run between $600 to $1,000 per day, excluding the cost of an operating technician, and hiring technicians for drones is even more costly because they require pilot’s licenses.

Despite the costs, some organizations believe drones and crawlers may be a stepping stone to a brighter and smarter future for the industry.

Reuters reported that Norwegian oil producer Statoil is eying an unmanned, remotely operated production concept. Noble Drilling and General Electric Co this year and launched a partnership to produce a fully digitized drilling vessel, work the companies said paves the way for an autonomous drilling fleet.

“We have the technology. It’s just a matter of getting these projects executed. We’re not there yet on unmanned platforms for deepwater, but it’s coming,” said Statoil’s Lockhart.