The oil and gas sector has eyed the benefits of autonomous operation for many decades. The attraction is evident with this new way of working offering significant benefits to operators in terms of safety and operational efficiency. It also will reduce the cost of new installations by removing the living space for workers and support staff. What’s more, ABB studies have shown that 80% of production downtime is preventable, and half of this is due to operator errors. These errors cost the petrochemical industry $20 billion each year.

Until recently, the journey toward autonomous operations has been a slow one. The first tentative steps were taken in the late ’80s by AMOCO on the Hod wellhead and stabilization platform for its Valhall Field. The thinking at the time was that it did not make sense to have any people on the wellhead platforms and, as they were close to the main facility, it was a perfect candidate. During the next decade, the concept advanced in Eni’s Augustina and Barbara gas fields in Italy, which were both predominantly unmanned and remotely operated.

The next step along the autonomous pathway involved moving to an entirely unmanned operation. An excellent example of this is the remote satellite platforms supporting the two wellheads at the Peregrino Field. The facilities were more challenging and complex, as the operations included processing and electric heating—both of which demanded more power.

The progress of digital technologies has placed the reality of autonomous operations within reach. There have been examples of significant steps along the path, such as ABB’s work on the Aasta Hansteen Field. The challenge was to make the first gas startup process as quick and efficient as possible. For this, ABB needed to reduce a sequence of more than 1,000 manual interventions to as few as possible, saving about 40 days in the commissioning phase of the project.

In other industries, ABB is progressing toward autonomous operations. The marine sector is on the way to developing autonomous shipping and already has a strong remote monitoring proposition. Likewise, the mining sector already utilizes autonomous trucks and drilling, and it has projects in place to increase autonomy.

Then there is the automotive industry, with its much publicized quest for autonomous cars. The automotive industry has many similarities to the oil and gas sector. It already has developed the technology for autonomous vehicles, and much technology is in use every day in road cars, such as blind-spot detection, lane departure warning and parking assistance. All that is required to make cars fully autonomous is for them all to be packed to work in harmony, safely and reliably.

There are already numerous examples where digital technology has significantly optimized operations in oil and gas, from automated processes for plant startup through to simulators, remote operations, predictive maintenance and robotic inspection. With a growing trend of remote operations and support from modern artificial intelligence platforms, digital progress is underway.

Across the sectors mentioned, there remains a common hurdle to overcome—legislation. At present, regulations have developed over the years based on manned operations, with a human presence required for many processes. With autonomous systems being installed to mirror conventional work on some new facilities, evidence that autonomous operations can be carried out safely is being accumulated. Once these data are presented to regulators, legislation will most likely ensue to support an age of autonomous operations.