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Here comes the droids

Automated and autonomous vehicles are coming, but robot roughnecks are further out

Beyond expanded adoption of automated-software solutions, several kinds of physical robots will make a more visible appearance in the oil patch in 2018.

Although oil and gas is one of the more "traditional" industries of the economy, this makes it a sector ripe for technology disruption. Furthermore, given the relatively dangerous nature of some work in oil and gas—at the wellhead, in maintenance roles and at refineries—robots are likely to replace humans in a number of these more dangerous jobs over time.

In general, several robotic and automation developments are likely to accelerate for oil and gas in 2018: industrial drone use will spread; the deployment of automated subsea maintenance vehicles will expand significantly; and incremental pad-site developments will be achieved in a move towards minimum viable products that can remove some of the more physically exposed labourers from the process.

In 2017, awareness about robots increased significantly. A number of articles, videos, and books (including my own book, Jobs for Robots) were dedicated to the subject. This trend really kicked off at the end of 2016, when the office of the US president released a report about automation's risk for jobs. This was followed by studies from McKinsey and other firms. Journalists say that when it bleeds it leads. And nothing bleeds quite like the notion that robots are about to steal our livelihood.

But the truth is that robots won't take all the jobs. The first on the chopping block are those that need relatively low levels of education, are highly repetitive and/or very dangerous. Although the oil patch is likely to see only modest deployment of robots in 2018, the space is a high priority because of the dangerous nature of downhole work, the environmental importance that systems work flawlessly, and the common mismatch between geographically available labour and operational needs.

The biggest challenge to robots is gravity, and it's the reason that the first robots in the oil patch aren't going to be metal or carbon-fibre roughnecks running pipe downhole. They likely won't look like people at all, and they may be acting in roles that will seem unexpected.

The first jobs on the chopping block are those that need low levels of education, are highly repetitive and/or very dangerous

One area where you're likely to see robots used is as automated deep-sea maintenance vehicles that monitor, maintain, and repair seabed assets. These kinds of robots operate in an environment where gravity is much less of a physical constraint than it is on land. In 2018, the deployment of unguided, fully autonomous vehicles in this area is likely to accelerate.

Another area that will see oil and gas firms deploy robots in 2018 is in the air. For example, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be more broadly adopted for maintenance. In a similar way that subsea vehicles can escape the constraints of gravity, these flying drones can operate from the sky and cover great distances quickly. Of course, I'm not talking about a drone you'll give your kids for their birthday. I'm talking about large 10-15-foot-wide (or significantly larger) industrial drones that can follow an aboveground pipeline, monitoring it for any physical problems - and do so more rapidly and more thoroughly than a team of people. Deploying these drones comes with another advantage: they can carry significant payloads of equipment for delivery to remote teams.

Although subsea and aerial automated vehicles will become more commonplace in 2018, it will likely be many years before they fully displace all guided subsea vehicle and maintenance teams on the ground. But in 2018, automated support for these human teams will increase. These kinds of robots, ones that support work in a collaborative way, are known as "co-bots" in tech-ish nomenclature—and they're on their way.

So, is 2018 a year when robots come to the oil patch? Yes. Is it a year when some terminator-like robot starts running pipe downhole? Probably not. While robots in the sea and in the air are coming in 2018, the broad adoption of robots on the ground will take longer. Their use is a priority, but gravity is a real problem.

Jason Schenker is Author, Futurist and President of oil-and-gas forecasting firm Prestige Economics

This article is part of Outlook 2018, our annual book looking at energy market trends for the year ahead. To purchase a copy, click here

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