Robotic arm and subsea 'snake' bring advanced robotics to the oilfield

First live trials of the Eelume underwater robot took place in Trondheim, Norway. Image: Eelume AS

With the demonstration of the world’s first snake-like underwater robot constructed for offshore operations and the demonstration of snake-arm robotic inspection system ready to go offshore, advanced robotics are penetrating the oil and gas sector as never before.

Eelume AS announced this month it successfully tested its subsea snake-like underwater robot at the PREZIOSO Linjebygg Subsea Test Center in Trondheim and in real-world conditions in the deep waters of a Norwegian fjord.

The futuristic, snake-like vehicle is designed to live permanently underwater and carry out subsea intervention tasks that would normally require the mobilization of expensive surface vehicles for divers or to launch and retrieve ROVs or AUVs. The modular design allows the vehicle to access hard to reach points on subsea structures, while its ability to shift into a U-shaped dual arm configuration allows intricate interactions using a diverse toolset including torque tools, grippers and specialized maintenance equipment.

Eelume robots will be permanently installed on the seabed, ready 24/7 for planned and on-demand inspections and interventions. They will save costs by reducing the use of expensive surface vessels, which are needed to support such operations today, Eelume said in a statement. The tool can be equipped with several types of sensors and tools needed to fulfill its missions.

The vehicles can be installed on both existing and new fields, where typical jobs will include visual inspection, cleaning, operating valves and chokes, and other light intervention tasks. Such jobs account for a large part of the total subsea inspection and intervention spend.

A company spun out from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Eelume teamed up with NTNU Technology Transfer Office, Kongsberg Maritime and Statoil to develop the technology.

“Everything is progressing on schedule for the intervention demonstration during the latter part of 2018,” said Arne Kjørsvik, chief executive officer, Eelume. “The system has proven itself to be a very capable inspection tool able to reach confined areas with ease. Potential operators and end customers have shown a lot of interest in Eelume, not just because it is an interesting technology, but also because it can do things that no other vehicle can.”

"We have learnt a huge amount during the development phase of the Eelume vehicle, not least the need to configure the system architecture correctly to enable future developments. When completed, the vehicle will operate with a wide range of tools and sensors including Kongsberg positioning, communications and potentially acoustic inspection sensors and chemical sniffers," added Richard Mills, director of sales marine robotics, Kongsberg Maritime.

Meanwhile, U.K. technology developer OC Robotics said it is about to undertake its first offshore trial of its novel snake-arm robot with Chevron. Its P100 snake-arm robotic inspection system has already been proven onshore, the company said, and it is now exploring the feasibility of robotic inspection of offshore oil and gas pressure vessels.

Snake-arm robots are driven by wire ropes and controlled by OC Robotics’ proprietary software. They are especially suited to working in confined and hazardous spaces as they can navigate and traverse cluttered environments, the company said. Only the arm itself is deployed into the workspace as the main drive motors, electronics and control systems are located away from the inspection area.

In what the company is calling a world first offshore trial on one of Chevron’s North Sea assets, the project will assess current capabilities and future needs for long-term operation of robotic equipment. OC Robotics is adapting its existing technology to be more robust and adaptable for the restricted access encountered on offshore rigs, such as deck layouts, narrow walkways and handrails.

“We inspect our assets at regular intervals to determine their continued fitness for service and prevent asset-integrity or process-safety-related incidents. This causes a dilemma as, to do so, we have to perform high-risk, confined-space inspections. To this end, Chevron and the wider industry have been looking for solutions that will help minimize human entry in confined and hazardous environments for tasks like cleaning and inspection,” said Russell Brown, senior reliability engineer, Chevron ETC.

“There is real potential to improve inspection outputs and extend asset life by characterising vessels and assessing fitness for service without human entry into dangerous and confined spaces,” Rebecca Smith, project manager at OC Robotics, said in a statement.

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