Advances in robotics have potential in offshore oil and gas industry

 When an oil company is drilling for oil thousands of feet below the ocean surface, the remotely-operated vehicles doing most of the work can trace their DNA back to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. The institute has been sending people and machines to the deepest depths of the ocean for decades.

The Noble Bully I is outfitted with two ROVs, so it has a backup in case one is need of maintenance. Photo: Shell Oil Co.

So it was no surprise to see James Bellingham, the director of the institute’s Center for Marine Robotics addressing a breakfast at the Offshore Technology Center on Monday, talking about the new advances in underwater robots and how the technology used to research plankton mass can also be used to more accurately and safely drill for oil and natural gas.


Bellingham shared telemetry from an autonomous, torpedo-shaped submarine that carried a more than 200 pounds and traveled more than 1,000 miles measuring the amount of living things along its track into the Pacific Ocean.


“Now we’re really getting to the position where we have begun to decouple ourselves from the ship,” he said.


This is particularly important because the ships are the most expensive part of any underwater robot operation. Ships can cost $90,000 a day just to operate just two units. The more autonomous they become, the cheaper they are to operate.


Scott Dingman, CEO of Montgomery-based Delta SubSea, has been giving this a lot of thought. Two years ago he launched a start-up specializing in underwater vehicles that inspect, maintain and repair underwater oil and gas fields.


Dingman said he imagines a day when the vehicles only rarely come to the surface. Several vehicles with different capability reside in an underwater charging station and are operated remotely using optical systems tied to surface buoys that can link to far-away operators. He said if you could transform the submersible operations fleet from 40 ships to give off the coast of Brazil, operators could see amazing cost savings.


“You’re talking $3 million a day in cost savings, then multiple that by 365 and the life of the field,” Dingman told me. “I think there are some changes coming.”


Those changes can’t come quick enough for deep-water operators struggling to generate enough profits at $55-a-barrel oil. The Offshore Technology Conference this year is all about saving money in offshore operations.


Bellingham was pitched his Center for Marine Robotics to offshore oilfield services companies as a chance to get access to the latest research and technology. They’d be wise to take him up on the offer.



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