AI News, The Gulf Spill's Lessons for Robotics

The Gulf Spill's Lessons for Robotics

In the weeks following the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig on 20 April, a dozen robots the size of moving vans descended into the Gulf of Mexico.

'No one's ever seen anything like this before—that many ROVs simultaneously working on one project,' says Tyler Schilling, president and CEO of Schilling Robotics, based in Davis, Calif., which manufactured four of the ROVs in the Gulf and all the robots' manipulator arms.

But if predictions about the growth of deep-water drilling prove accurate, big fleets of robots will become the norm, and with that will come the need for much better automation.

For example, when a device inside the rig's blowout preventer failed to automatically seal off the spewing drill pipe, engineers sent ROVs down to jam it into place.

When that didn't work, they sent ROVs to saw off the busted pipe, position a four-story dome over the well, and later install a smaller oil-collecting cap in its place.

BP's gusher sits at 1500 meters—easily reachable by ROVs, which can work at depths as great as 7000 meters when equipped with blocks of syntactic foam.

'work-class' ROV requires a lot of power to drive its hydraulic pumps, which spin thrusters and animate manipulator arms and tools, allowing the robot to haul half a metric ton.

Despite the BP disaster, analysts expect deep-water oil production worldwide to rise from 6 million to 10 million barrels a day within five years.

(The remainder maintain subsea telecom cables, aid scientific research, and mine for diamonds.) Most offshore operations need just a few robots for construction and maintenance—laying cables, operating valves, and anchoring equipment, among other tasks.

As companies expand operations with deeper wells and horizontal drilling, 'facilities on the seafloor will get more and more populated [with equipment], and more and more complex operations will have to be run,' says Julio Guerrero, a mechanical systems and robotics expert at Schlumberger-Doll Research Center, in Cambridge, Mass.