by Danielle Larmon

    Unmanned Oil Rigs – Are They the Way of the Future?

    Robotic Drilling Systems (RDS) has developed an innovative autonomous robotic drilling rig for unmanned drilling operations. The RDS system sets new standards with increased safety and cost-effective planning and drilling, and can be implemented on existing as well as new drilling structures both offshore and on land.

    Technology innovation has been making leaps and bounds in our time. The future of the oil and gas industry is harnessing the use of unmanned oil production methods both on land and at sea. Unmanned rigs are technologies that can be monitored by fewer workers, specifically calibrated to the needs of an individual well, and operated from a distance.

    Companies such as Statoil, Enegi Oil, Wood Group, and China Offshore Oil Engineering Company (COOEC) are interested in the application of unmanned buoys to tap small reservoirs off the coasts of Scotland, Ireland, England, and Norway that are too expensive to justify the use of fully-manned rigs. Enegi Oil estimates that 88 such fields exist in the North Sea. Unico, Inc. has developed a pump with the added perks of being quieter and less visually distracting for use on land, and Robotic Drilling Systems (RDS) has developed a robotic system that works on any well, anywhere.

    Unmanned Oil Rigs – On Land

    In the United States, the iconic “nodding donkey” or “pumpjack” well has been used for decades – the design was invented by the Lufkin Foundry and Machine Company in 1925. This particular pump design is responsible for production of two-thirds of the world’s operating wells. However, parts for these pumps are dangerous to assemble and dismantle. They also tend to have issues when they are running dry, which can cause damage to expensive parts that are hard to access during maintenance.

    Expanding on the needs of the oil and gas industry to integrate unmanned rigs, Unico, Inc. has come up with the Linear Rod Pump (LRP) system – quiet, low cost to transport and install, easily handled by two people, and controlled by a flux vector inverter drive, the LRP system is ideal for places where a “nodding donkey” would be noisy and could detract from the landscape. With the LRP system, companies can drill in neighbourhoods and parking lots for untapped oil reservoirs without disturbing residents. The most effective feature is the remote unmanned monitoring. Adding to the prospects of lower production costs and fewer worker casualties, this technological advance is
    a necessity in the future of oil production on land.

    Robotic Drilling Systems (RDS), funded by Odfjell Drilling, has also developed a robotic drilling system. RDS says, “The new system sets new standards with increased safety and cost-effective planning and drilling.” The flexible rig can be used on both existing wells and new ones, and it can be used on land, at sea, or even in space. RDS signed an agreement with NASA in 2012 to design their fully-automated technology, and use it to position itself with satellite coordinates, erect structures on its own, drill a well, and continue on to the next site.

    At Sea

    A Normally Unmanned Installation (NUI) is a remotely-operated offshore oil and gas platform. NUIs still need maintenance but instead of keeping the staff on the rig, they are serviced by a larger platform nearby. Mr. Richard Selwa, chairman and founder of Unmanned Production Buoy (UPD), has been working to develop a method of tapping small oil finds offshore that are either uneconomic to produce with fully-manned rigs or are leftovers from bigger operations.

    In the fall of 2013, UPD signed an agreement with Amec to construct three unmanned floating platforms. Selwa’s buoy design was inspired by the “nodding donkey” pumps he observed in the state of Wyoming. Mr. Selwa says, “It was seeing that process at work and saying, ‘Actually it’s much simpler. It’s a standardized technology. Why don’t we just put that offshore?’” Mr. Selwa cites that the biggest advantage to his design is the use of heat provided by burning gas out of the well itself for temperature-based stabilization instead of the more commonly utilized pressure-based approach – saving costs and reducing worker injuries. Implementation of UPD’s floating rigs in the North Sea is set for 2016, with many more prospects and possibilities ahead.

    In February 2015, Statoil announced they will be utilizing an unmanned wellhead platform for phase I of the Oseberg Future development project off the coast of Norway, which will be controlled from the Oseberg field centre. Ivar Aasheim, Senior Vice President of Field Development, says, “The platform will have high-quality equipment to reduce the need for maintenance during the operations phase. Consequently, we are planning for only two short maintenance campaigns per year, which will be carefully planned and performed
    in good-weather seasons.”

    In April 2015, Enegi Oil predicted that the demand for these types of structures will increase, and has been working with Advanced Buoy Technology Oil & Gas (ABTOG) to also start tapping small reservoir locations in the North Sea.

    The benefits of operating unmanned oil structures are substantial, abundant, and quickly catching on. At the rate which technology continues to advance, we predict that unmanned oil rigs will take a giant leap.

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