HOUSTON—As workforce attrition has taken its toll on the offshore oil and gas industry, robots and humans may become more common co-workers in the future.

In a variety of industries, including health care, manufacturing and oil and gas exploration, technology continues to improve.

During the Automation, Robotics and Remote Operations panel on May 5 at the Offshore Technology Conference, a diverse group of service providers and operators showed off their innovations in robotics, including robots that can traverse environments lethal to humans, autonomous drilling on the seafloor (an idea borrowed from drilling on the moon) and robots that learn from human touch.

The thesis of the panel was based on the axiom that “the solutions and answers to your problems may be in your neighbor’s toolbox.”

Borrowing such technologies may well benefit the offshore industry as it looks to replace workers and increase efficiencies, monitor for severe weather or even do important but laborious tasks such as painting offshore platforms.

Marcia O'Malley, associate dean for research and innovation at Rice University, said her research is focusing on expanding physical human-robot interaction.

Robots are typically charged with the “four Ds,” she said: tasks that are dull, dangerous, dirty and distant.

“We want to move from human workers on assembly lines to automation,” particularly for tasks that are repetitive, she said. O’Malley is working with ways to teach robots through interaction with people. She showed video examples of students correcting the way a robot moved a robotic arm through a space to keep the cup level and close to a desk. The robot’s software allows it to learn from the physical contact it encounters from humans—including pushing and pulling—to perform a task according to human expectations.

Those physical interactions can form “information rich” interactions that enhance human and robot performance.

She noted that robots are moving away from being set aside in caged environments and into the workplace. While fully autonomous robots may be the goal, first “we should think about teaming of robots and humans together might give us the flexibility of the domain expertise of the human, the ability to work in an uncertain, unstructured environments while also taking advantage of the repeatability and precision of our robotic systems,” she said.

Jose Collados, business line manager at ABB, said the company has worked with robotics to improve efficiencies within hospitals. The company has worked with laboratories to create a full end-to-end sample preparation and assay of lab samples using two independent robots. The robots perform tasks with multiple laboratory instruments such as liquid handlers and incubators.

From initial conception to implementation, ABB used automation simulation tools, hours of collaboration with its customer and standard robotic tools to automate the process.

By doing this, “we are able to do all the changes … improving from 15 tests a day to 1,800.”

With such delicate tasks being handled in other applications, Shell’s robotics teams have been working in far more hazardous and high-stakes areas, including storage tanks, pressurized vessels, pipelines along the development of “explosion-proof” robots that save time and increase safety, said Steven Treviño, director and robotics lead for Shell.

Foremost, Treviño said that safety is the company's chief goal.

“Everyone wants to go home; everyone has a family,” he said.

Shell’s robotic workforce is based on a standard that the robot must be “as good or better than the traditional method” in performing a task.

“We are currently, as an industry, developing robotic solutions for cleaning, inspection and maintenance,” he said. “This is where we can really talk about how technology has come a long way.”

Robotic systems that are certified as safe for their hazardous or risky locations are being put into environments where they use sensor packages and a variety of cameras and lasers to scan perform integrity assessments.

Treviño said he’s seeing a proliferation of explosion-proof certified robotic systems—robots that operate at a low enough voltage that they can perform their tasks.

“This has never been achieved before,” he said. “This has only been available within less than the last five years, because we're talking about gasoline, diesel and kerosene ... [environments where] these systems operate.”

In the case of a fuel storage tank, opening a manway can cause vapors to mix with oxygen. The various hazards change at different depths in the tank, either above vapors or in the various zones of fluid within the tank. Crude oil tanks are also massive—some 300 feet in diameter and 80 to 90 feet in height.

A human inspection requires draining the tank and cleaning it before teams can be sent inside.

“However, these robotic systems are going through all of them at the same time, because they have a tether or umbilical,” he said. “We know if we're putting a couple hundred pound robot that's going to drive itself with all of these sensors” it has to be safe.

The robot can operate for hours performing meticulous scans before it is retrieved successfully.

“This is a transformation of how we operate and maintain these types of equipment,” he said.

Shell sees a progression from the early days of robotics, which involved robots that could adequately perform tasks, to embedding robots today into everyday workflows on a large scale.

The company also uses drones and magnetic crawler robots to inspect wind turbines, a job typically fraught with danger for humans.

The future, Treviño said, could include unmanned facilities and artificial intelligence.

O’Malley offered one caution. While fully autonomous robots may be the goal, not all teams may be a good idea.

“Machine learning and AI is great, but I don’t think we should use it with physics,” she said.