Large segments of the UK North Sea industry are now in a mature phase. But, instead of shutting down fields, some operators are looking to automation, remote operations and robotics to help reduce operational costs, increase safety and prolong field life.

A number of world’s firsts, in drone and robotics technologies, have been achieved as a result. A key driver is cost. Operators have responded to the low oil price. The UK’s Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) says average unit operating costs fell from £19 (US$26.47) per barrel (bbl), in 2014, to £12 (US$16.72)/bbl in 2017. But, many believe more gains can be made by adopting new technologies.

Part of the challenge is that the UK basin is full of older facilities—the average age is 26. With age comes obsolescence and equipment that needs regular attention. Sending staff to these facilities costs. Even before prices slid in 2014, maintenance costs were putting pressure on some field economics. Instead of shutting fields down, Spirit Energy (previously Centrica), decided to explore remote operations, including drones.

Working with Servelec Controls, the firm simplified and automated its 33-year-old DP6 gas platform on the South Morecambe field in the East Irish Sea, so that it can be operated from the nearby manned main South Morecambe platform.

Spirit Energy project manager John Gordon said: “It’s now a challenge for most operators to defer the cost of decommissioning and squeeze the most they can out of their assets. But it has to be done without operating costs being more than what they are getting from the asset. The business drivers for us were to, a., clear the backlog of asset integrity and conventional maintenance and, b., tackle issues with obsolescence going forward.” Without radical action, it could have meant early decommissioning.

A large part of the project, which completed in February, was simplification; removing redundant topside plant and accommodation, resulting in reduced maintenance costs. “About 70% of ATEX equipment was removed, which reduced inspection requirements,” Gordon said. Reliability has been increased by introducing 36-hour capacity back-up batteries, so that, in the event of a power outage operations can continue. The facility was also debottlenecked.

Crucially, a new integrated control and safety system (ICSS) and electrical control system, designed by Servelec, and operable from shore, was installed. The system includes alarm management, asset monitoring, fire and gas detection and control, emergency shutdown, electrical system monitoring and remote control.

Routine maintenance can now be done remotely via SCADA systems, which monitor and enable remote restart of the facility’s systems, supported by CCTV cameras and other monitoring technologies, says Spirit Energy. Wells suffering from water build up can now be shut-in, allowed to build up pressure and then re-opened, Gordon said. The ICSS also supports black-starts, further reducing manned interventions. Previously, any outage longer than an hour required an engineer to be sent to the platform to re-start it, says Gordon.

Servelec is in talks with other North Sea operators about taking a similar approach, said Servelec sales director Chris Stones, including one project to completely de-man a platform and operate it from another nearby facility.

To further reduce the need to send people offshore, Spirit Energy is using drones. Having initially been used to inspect hard to reach areas, such as flare stacks, these systems are becoming increasingly intelligent, with a growing payload of sensors (in addition to cameras) and scanning tools, as well as autonomous capability, i.e. automated flight paths, situation awareness (inside tanks where the geometry might be previously unknown), and “event” detection.

Last year, working with FlyLogix, Spirit Energy used a fixed wing drone, flown 21.9 miles from onshore, to obtain FLIR imagery following an unplanned shut down on the DP3 platform in the South Morecambe field. FlyLogix says it was the longest commercial drone flight in the UK.

Spirit isn’t alone in adopting these technologies. For another operator, drone firm Air Control Entech live-streamed video footage from a drone operating on a North Sea floating production storage and offloading vessel to the operator’s onshore offices. Such a move, described as a first, was made possible by North Sea’s growing 4G network. Other tools are coming, such as ultrasonic thickness measurement and RFID scanning.

Meanwhile, portable robots for inspecting inside pressure vessels on platforms are also being developed. These could eliminate the need for human entry for inspection and cleaning, reducing risk to personnel, as well as the need for plant shut-down. OC Robotics has been working with Chevron on such a robot. Last year, the robotics firm’s so-called P100 snake-arm robot undertook another world first offshore trial, on Chevron’s Alba Northern platform in the central North Sea. The P100 has a 3.5m-long, articulated arm, controlled by wire ropes, deployed from a mobile unit. Only the arm enters the work space, while all the motors, electronics and controls are on the unit.

These projects could just be the start. The Oil & Gas Technology Centre, a publicly funded UK body tasked with promoting new technologies, recently announced investment in three robotics projects relating to pressure vessel inspection. This is an area worth watching, if not participating in.