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Drones and robots in Equinor

“The robots are coming!” We have heard that one before, right? But now they are actually here, and they’re not science fiction. Equinor has established a project to work with and accelerate the introduction of robots and drones in the air, on land and under water.

A project called AIR (Autonomy, interoperability and robotics) has been established to deliver on the part of Equinor’s digital vision that cover robotics: “Robots will make our work easier”. It also delivers on the company’s strategic goals of always safe and high value. In situations where the use of ships and helicopters can be replaced by drones, there will also be a contribution to reduced CO2 emissions; supporting Equinor’s low carbon goal.

Saipem underwater robot at Njord

Subsea drone sets new world record

A subsea drone working for Equinor recently set the world record for the longest period ever for an operational remotely controlled vessel underwater, spending 165 days at a depth of 330 metres.

The Saipem Hydrone-R drone has been working at the Njord field in the Norwegian Sea, performing regular drill support, production support activities and some autonomous operations at Njord field, giving important information about potential leaks or hazards.

The Saipem Hydrone-R drone

Never before has any operational vessel been working under water for so long. The Saipem Hydrone-R drone has been working at 330 meters below the surface for 165 days at the Njord field in the Norwegian Sea for Equinor.

Proving so-called subsea residency, the ability for underwater drones to stay long periods on the seabed, has been an important part of qualifying underwater drones (UID’s) for extensive use in Equinor.

“The fact that we have just been able to keep the Hydrone-R working at the Njord field for six months is beyond our expectations. To our knowledge, this is the longest subsea residency period ever achieved. It has been plodding along on the seabed and doing what it’s been told to. We have not had to keep any extra vessels or crew standby to monitor it. It has just done its job, and sent its data to us along the way,” says Jan Christian Torvestad , project manager for underwater drones in Equinor.

The drone was recovered on 2 December 2023, after having been on the seafloor since 18 July. Over the last years Equinor has expanded the use of drones and robots in our operations, both onshore and offshore. The ambition is to have around 10 subsea drones working along the entire NCS by 2030, in addition to air drones and robots.

All operations with flying drones in the Tampen area in the North Sea are controlled from the operations centre at Sandsli in Bergen.
Photo: Ole Jørgen Bratland

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4D for robots

In Equinor, we collect a lot of data about the subsurface with 2D, 3D and 4D seismic. But have your heard of the 4 Ds for robots?

Dangerous, dirty, dull, distant; jobs with such characteristics are the ones we want to leave to the robots. Quite fitting actually, as it meets our always safe goal and fits nicely with the original word in Czech, where robota means serf labour or hard work. In Equinor terms, use of robots will mean less people in red zones (high risk areas), less exposure to e.g. chemicals, less repetitive tasks or work in difficult-to-reach places. Simply put, get humans out of harm’s way by reducing their exposure to the 4 Ds.

Money to be saved

The high value part of robotisation can be achieved by utilising robots as tools to perform inspection and maintenance task more efficiently. With robots and drones we can also conduct more frequent inspections, improving our insights into the conditions of our installations. Flying drones both externally and internally for inspection work (e.g. inside and outside a large tank) is becoming more common, but it is still not the standard for many applications. Equinor has tested robots for welding, cleaning, sandblasting, painting, 3D scanning, leak detection, environmental monitoring, and quantification of diffuse emissions. Equinor is also testing logistical operations with drones in the North Sea, with good results. And deep into the ocean we want to use drones for pipeline inspections, maintenance and more.

The estimated cost savings from a broad implementation of robots and drones exceeds 1 billion NOK per year. The value creation will come not only from the actual tasks solved more efficiently; the robots will also collect operational data. The goal is that these data can give significant added value when put to use. As data collection platforms, the robots will play an important in our data driven operations.

Here are some of the key elements being matured within the AIR project:

  • Flying drones for inspection of confined spaces
  • Standardized docking station for subsea drones
  • Underwater intervention drones for inspection, maintenance and repair tasks
  • Robot and drone software and IoT (Internet of things devices) communication infrastructure
  • Ground robots for advanced inspection and light intervention
  • Digital twin mission planner for robots and drones
  • Advanced analytics applications on different data sources, e.g. sound, video and pictures collected from robots
  • IoT sensors and 5G communication for autonomous robots
  • Online process simulation models for conditions monitoring, prediction and process optimisation
  • Industry 4.0, driver open and standardised automation systems to enable future interoperability

Robots are science fiction no more, and they are not taking over in an uncontrolled manner, as they did in the Czech play. In Equinor, they are supplementary and a tangible, very cool part of digitalisation.