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Equinor’s robot drive spearheads digital future

July 12, 2018 | Singapore | OSEA2018 Industry Insights

Equinor's robot drive spearheads digital future
Norwegian giant plans more unmanned installations as it automates operations

Smaller, unmanned and robotised installations will dominate Equinor’s project portfolio in the coming years as the Norwegian company builds on ambitious plans to automate its operations.

Equinor plans to have subsea drones installed on multiple fields off Norway later this year, with more automated technologies to be phased in as it continues a trend toward lighter offshore installations that require fewer people to operate.

The company, which until May this year was known as Statoil, has been on the forefront of technology development in the oil and gas industry, from its giant concrete oil platform installations of the 1980s to recent subsea technology breakthroughs such as the Aasgard and Gullfaks subsea gas compression systems.

Automised installations

The next important technology step is automatised installations, according to the company’s vice president for technology management Bjorn Kaare Viken.

“We aim to develop smaller and lighter installations, which are unmanned, robotised and controlled from shore,” Viken says.

“This will increase profitability and flexibility, and also reduce the carbon footprint of the developments. These new concepts allow us to develop fields which were unthinkable a few years back.”

According to Viken, the common denominator for Equinor’s new field development concepts is a significant amount of automated work tasks.

“An example is use of subsea drones, which are placed permanently underwater. These drones will make their breakthrough this year as they will be installed on multiple fields,” he says.

Equinor does not want to reveal more details at this stage, but Upstream has learned that the Aasgard field in the Norwegian Sea is among the assets where Equinor plans to install subsea robots.

In 2016, Equinor signed a co-operation agreement with Norwegian technology company Eelume, which has developed a self-propelled, articulated robotic arm for subsea inspection and maintenance. The units are permanently installed on the seabed and can carry out planned and on-demand inspections and interventions.

The Eelume vehicle has a dual-arm configuration, which is achieved by mounting tooling in each end and forming the vehicle body into a U-shape.

One end of the arm can grab while the other end carries out inspection and intervention tasks.

Subsea drones are just one step in Equinor’s move towards automated oil and gas production, which includes the development of completely unmanned production platforms.

The first step in this direction was the Oseberg Vestflanken 2 unmanned wellhead platform, which was installed in 2017.

“The completely unmanned platforms will not have living quarters. Perhaps they will not even have a helipad, just a landing area for flying drones,” Viken says.

Viken declines to say where the next advances in unmanned platform technology will be deployed, but promises that the goal of full automation is within reach.

“We can’t disclose this until decisions have been made, but we are looking at specific fields where we are considering new steps on the road to a completely unmanned production platform,” he says.

“We who are involved in technology development see that it is possible, and we want to talk about our ambitions at an early stage because it represents huge opportunities for the supplier industry, which we rely on to succeed,” Viken says, adding that the company, together with others, has successfully developed the world’s first subsea gas compression units at Aasgard and Gullfaks and the world’s first floating wind farm.

Eyes on Brazil

At the Underwater Technology Conference, held in June in Bergen, Norway, Viken told an audience that Equinor’s ambition is to develop a standalone, unmanned deep-water production platform that could be installed in areas such as Brazil.

Viken explains that this is a bit further down the road.

“We are ambitious and want to be open about our goals,” he says.

“The reason we are doing this is that we want to challenge the status quo. We want our partners and suppliers to look at our goals when they assess what is possible, not to look backwards at what has already been built.”

One automated field development, which is likely to be realised sooner than a deep-water unmanned platform in Brazil, is an unmanned spar platform at the Peon gas discovery in the Norwegian North Sea.

Upstream understands that this project is looking increasingly plausible, though Viken says it still is too early to say when this concept will be realised.

“Peon is a very exciting field in the northern part of the North Sea. We are working on a solution with a completely unmanned platform powered from shore,” he says.

“Our plan is to use algorithms for automatised production optimisation and to predict maintenance needs. Drones will also play an important part here.”

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