NASA’s recent Curiosity rover may be instructing the oil industry all the way from Mars.
Inspired by the workings of Curiosity, Norway’s Robotic Drilling Systems AS has created a drilling rig that essentially thinks for itself. The company has also signed an info-sharing deal with NASA in order to gain access to detailed information on Curiosity.
The initiative is seen as symptomatic of a broader shift within the oil and gas industry wherein engineers hope to create fully automated rigs that can reach targets based on satellite coordinates, set up camp in modular fashion, complete drilling operations, pack up, and move on to the next drill site. Sounds fancy, but that’s basically a scaled-up version of what NASA’s space rovers have been doing.
“You’re seeing a new track in the industry emerging,” says Eric van Oort, a former Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA) executive who’s leading a new graduate-level engineering program focused on automated drilling at the University of Texas at Austin. “This is going to blossom.”
So far, Texan companies Apache Corp. (NYSE: APA) and National Oilwell Varco Inc. (NYSE: NOV), along with Norway’s Statoil ASA (NYSE: STO), are some of the companies leading the way.
The greatest obstacle they have faced is entrenched thinking within the industry that places a premium on human experience and skills. But there are heavy costs to the industry’s reliance on human involvement, as seen lately in the 2010 BP (NYSE: BP) disaster that claimed 11 lives.
According to Statoil, automation may not only cut down the number of live persons required on site by half, but it would also complete operations up to 25 percent faster.
Robotic Drilling Systems is working on developing 10-foot tall robots with jointed arms that enable it to extend outward around 10 feet, lift drill bits, and maneuver them into place. The robotic ‘deckhand’ is equipped with 15 interchangeable hands to handle various parts as needed.
Again taking inspiration from Curiosity, several companies are working on endowing these robotic operators with sensory intelligence adequate enough to empower them to assess ambient conditions and respond appropriately.
For example, National Oilwell Varco and Schlumberger Ltd. (NYSE: SLB) have created drill pipes that are wired with high-speed data lines, thus enabling them to convey information to workers at the surface. Apache hopes to go further, making drill bits intelligent enough to communicate vital information to the equipment above-ground as it drills deep underground, adjusting operations on the fly.
The trend is catching on quickly, riding on the booming shale revolution, and we should expect very interesting developments in oil and gas robotics soon.