Robots will be sent to work on North Sea oil and gas platforms as part of a £36.5 million project to cut the number of people employed in the world’s most extreme environments.
The Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, based at Edinburgh University, is leading the development of the four-legged robots, which will be able to navigate an offshore installation and carry out assessments, maintenance and some tasks.
The robots, largely controlled from offices on land, are being devised by the Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets (Orca) programme.
Professor Sethu Vijayakumar, director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, run in collaboration with Heriot Watt University, said the offshore robots would reduce jobs in the North Sea, address a recruitment shortage in oil and gas and make oil production more economically viable given competition from low-cost operations in the Middle East.
He said: “The Orca hub is specifically looking at the extreme environment of the North Sea. We want to take people out of this very harsh environment and give them better working conditions. We are also finding a shortage of people who are willing to work in these conditions. The pay is reasonable but it is proving more difficult to get the right skill set of people who are willing to spend six weeks away from their family.
“To make our oil and gas industry competitive with the rest of the world, we need this programme.”
The Orca programme is part of a broader UK government drive to deploy robotics in extreme environments which can also include disaster zones, nuclear radiation stores, underground mines, deep space and deep water.
The North Sea oil and gas industry has already ventured into robotics. Among innovations are drones being used to carry out maintenance inspections and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) doing basic pipeline and cable checks.
Prof Vijayakumar said: “What we are trying to do is go towards a more holistic solution that combines many kinds of robots – from robots that swim to robots that fly, to quadrupeds that can climb steps and navigate slippery surfaces and rugged terrains.”
The robot will be developed to sense obstacles, such as puddles, and react to mishaps, such as slips and falls. The Orca programme, a collaboration with Heriot-Watt University, Imperial College London, Oxford University and Liverpool University, has attracted funding of more than £18m from industry and a further £14m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
It has already conducted an underwater trial near Fort William with more testing due later this month at a fire college near Oxford, where the physical environment of an oil rig can be partly replicated.
Sections of a model oil rig have also be constructed at the Bayse Centre for data science and artificial intelligence at Edinburgh University.
Prof Vijayakumar said he did not envisage a time when rigs were run solely by robots and that maintenance teams would likely remain offshore to maintain and manage the equipment.
He added: “Humans are still very good at contextual decision making using prior knowledge. What we are looking at is a collaboration between robots and humans with robots to be used more like a tool.
“This isn’t about replacing jobs – it is about using technology to make working conditions much more attractive and making production economically viable.
“The industry will cease to exist if we don’t bring in the technology.”
Matt Abraham, Oil & Gas UK’s supply chain director, said such innovations would extend the life of the North Sea oil industry.
He said: “This industry operates in the most hostile and challenging of conditions but, thanks to the ground-breaking thinking and technological innovations developed by our world class supply chain, we are extending the life of the UK Continental Shelf.
“We will need innovative solutions and improved deployment of new technologies across multiple assets and licences to help realise the full potential resources in the basin - around 20 billion barrels of oil and gas.”
He said overall direct employement is likely to fall in the sector but 40,000 new people will be needed in the industry over the next 20 years.
Mr Abraham added: “A quarter of those will be in posts that don’t even exist today. Some of the new jobs we see on the horizon include those for technicians skilled in operating offshore equipment remotely and roles in data science, analytics and the development of new materials.
“By embracing these changes now, we are developing the supply chain of the future where our skills and expertise will be a highly valued export.”
Rebecca Allison, manager of the Asset Integrity Solution Centre at the Oil and Gas Technology Centre in Aberdeen, said: “Robotics has the potential to transform the offshore oil and gas industry. We have countless repetitive, dirty and potentially dangerous tasks carried out every day.
“Integrating robots for these tasks will help upskill our workforce and improve the quality of the jobs. “Projects like this will help inspire and attract the next generation oil and gas workforce.”