OFF­SHORE oil rigs can be ex­tremely dan­ger­ous places to work. Over the last few decades, sev­eral off­shore ex­plo­sions have led to en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters and the death of work­ers. Reg­u­la­tions have so far failed to stop fa­tal ac­ci­dents from oc­cur­ring. But with de­vel­op­ments in tech­nol­ogy, par­tic­u­larly the rise of au­to­ma­tion, we’re hop­ing that fu­ture ac­ci­dents can be re­duced. Small off­shore rigs are the sub­ject of re­search for au­to­mated mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems, which use a va­ri­ety of wire­less sen­sors. And, in a world first, an au­ton­o­mous ro­bot will soon be de­ployed to mon­i­tor equip­ment and in­spect gas leaks on a North Sea rig. If these tech­nolo­gies can be com­bined with tougher reg­u­la­tions, we might have found the key to re­duc­ing fu­ture loss of prop­erty and life. In 1988, 167 peo­ple were killed in the Piper Al­pha dis­as­ter. Since then, the safety and risk as­sess­ment of off­shore in­stal­la­tions has be­come much more vig­or­ous. Reg­u­la­tions now re­quire duty hold­ers and own­ers, such as Petro­fac and Shell, to demon­strate that they have taken ev­ery pos­si­ble mea­sure to stop ma­jor ac­ci­dents. But in 2010, the off­shore world suf­fered another dis­as­ter, when an ex­plo­sion de­stroyed the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon in­stal­la­tion in the Gulf of Mex­ico. 11 peo­ple were killed and the re­sult­ing oil leak had huge en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences. The cause of this dis­as­ter was a bro­ken sub­sea Blowout Preven­ter (BOP), a piece of ma­chin­ery that is used to seal, con­trol and mon­i­tor the un­con­trolled re­lease of oil and/ or gas. Since Piper Al­pha, ev­ery off­shore ac­ci­dent has led the in­dus­try and gov­ern­ments to read­dress the safety con­cerns sur­round­ing off­shore in­stal­la­tions. Most re­cently, in 2016, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion out­lined new drilling reg­u­la­tions aimed at pre­vent­ing a re­peat of the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon dis­as­ter. These reg­u­la­tions re­quire a greater num­ber of in­de­pen­dent in­spec­tors and im­proved safety equip­ment. But in the ab­sence of a more re­cent ma­jor off­shore dis­as­ter, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is set to roll back these reg­u­la­tions with the aim of re­duc­ing “un­nec­es­sary bur­dens” on the in­dus­try. In re­al­ity, these changes could be a recipe for dis­as­ter. In­stead of re­duc­ing off­shore safety reg­u­la­tions, we should be ex­pand­ing them. Many cur­rent reg­u­la­tions are still based on “static doc­u­ments”. This means that they have been rarely up­dated since they were in­tro­duced decades ago, and ex­ist rel­a­tively un­changed.

The Rise of Au­to­ma­tion

The re­cur­rence of ma­jor dis­as­ters means that we need to find a bet­ter way to pre­dict and stop ac­ci­dents be­fore they hap­pen. One rad­i­cal ap­proach is to rely more heav­ily on au­to­ma­tion. Au­to­mated mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems can range from re­mote sens­ing and record­ing de­vices to ac­tual ro­bots. Many dif­fer­ent ap­proaches have been pro­posed, but all with the same goal of pre­vent­ing the loss of life and prop­erty. One such ap­proach is be­ing tested later this year. A North Sea oil rig will de­ploy the first ever au­ton­o­mous ro­bot that will move around spe­cific ar­eas of the rig, vis­ually in­spect­ing equip­ment and de­tect­ing gas leaks. It can nav­i­gate nar­row path­ways and even ne­go­ti­ate stair­ways in or­der to ful­fil its in­spec­tions. The ro­bot will be based in ar­eas that are con­sid­ered high risk for hu­mans, such as gas tur­bine mod­ules, the equip­ment that pro­vides en­ergy to the off­shore rig. Cur­rently, it is of­ten hu­mans that in­spect for gas leaks, but any mis­take could lead to the death of all in the vicin­ity. By ap­ply­ing au­ton­o­mous sys­tems to mon­i­tor gas leaks, we re­duce the risk to hu­mans car­ry­ing out these tasks. But more than that, be­cause au­to­mated ro­bots can in­spect con­tin­u­ously, we also ex­pect fail­ures to oc­cur less of­ten. Another ap­proach that is be­ing re­searched for smaller off­shore rigs is the As­set In­tegrity Mon­i­tor­ing method, which al­lows for con­tin­ual live mon­i­tor­ing of off­shore sites. Sen­sors are de­ployed in­side or very close to the equip­ment, con­stantly de­tect­ing and trans­mit­ting any changes. For ex­am­ple, a sens­ing net­work could mon­i­tor the in­tegrity of a gas tur­bine by record­ing tem­per­a­ture as well as the pres­sure and flow of the fuel gas. While these are al­ready mon­i­tored on off­shore plat­forms, in many sit­u­a­tions they re­quire phys­i­cal in­spec­tion from a crew mem­ber. A re­mote mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem would use wire­less net­works to re­lay all of the rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion to a cen­tral hub. Here a com­plete sta­tus re­gard­ing the in­tegrity of the ma­chine can be an­a­lysed. This tech­nol­ogy would give safety of­fi­cials a clear pic­ture of the whole rig and its dif­fer­ent com­po­nent parts. The in­for­ma­tion could con­stantly be com­pared with off­shore reg­u­la­tions and as­sist with their en­force­ment. The next ma­jor step is for them to be tested and im­ple­mented on off­shore plat­forms. To im­prove safety on off­shore oil rigs, the most im­por­tant fac­tor is en­sur­ing that ap­pro­pri­ate safety pro­ce­dures are ap­plied to ap­pro­pri­ate sys­tems. For ex­am­ple, it would be use­less to de­ploy the au­ton­o­mous ro­bot into a low risk area to im­prove the safety of off­shore op­er­a­tions. These au­to­mated sys­tems are be­ing de­vel­oped in or­der to im­prove safety in high risk ar­eas. Find­ing the right bal­ance be­tween au­to­ma­tion and the risks posed by cer­tain jobs will be the key to suc­cess­fully in­tro­duc­ing au­to­ma­tion to off­shore oil rigs. What­ever hap­pens, au­to­ma­tion will not be im­me­di­ately thrust into the sec­tor, but in­creas­ingly it looks like the fu­ture of off­shore rig safety.

Im­age: US Coast Guard.

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