Recent developments in robotics may offer savings for oil companies drilling off-shore. Companies like Liquid Robotics and Kongsberg Underwater Technology have developed ocean-faring gliders to test and collect water samples, detect oil leaks and monitor pipelines thus cutting costs and manpower alike. Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron and other major oil companies are taking advantage of this technology.

Featuring autonomous control, a fuel-free design and a host of available sensors, these gliders can perform a variety of functions and eliminate the need for human presence. Oil companies are able to service and monitor their off-shore infrastructure without the use of buoys or manned boats. This makes for lower costs, less risk and, potentially, a more effective and far-reaching system. Glider industry leaders include Liquid Robotics, Kongsberg Underwater Technology and PrecisionHawk, each with unique offerings.

An Emerging Market

In 2012, Liquid Robotics partnered with Schlumberger to create Liquid Robotics Oil & Gas (LROG), as a means of introducing the Wave Glider to the oil industry. This partnership has generated considerable interest in the technology, doubling its workload each year with 23 missions conducted for 11 clients worldwide.

Sudhir Pai, vice president and general manager of LROG, says this is an emerging market.

“The opportunities are targeted at either markets that are currently occupied by expensive vessels that have an opportunity to be replaced by AUV's (autonomous underwater vehicles) or new opportunities taking advantage of technology and business gaps created due to environmental advantages, HSE, bathymetry and oceanography," he says.

Another offering is the Seaglider, initially developed by a marine scientist and a physicist at the University of Southern Mississippi and manufactured by iRobot. In 2010, the glider was deployed in the Gulf of Mexico to locate and monitor remnants of an oil spill. Since then, Kongsberg Underwater Technology has picked up where iRobot left off to further develop the technology. Like its earlier models, Kongsberg's Seaglider can be used by oil companies to monitor and even prevent oil spills.

PrecisionHawk is relatively new to the water testing industry. Unlike the Wave Glider and the Seaglider, PrecisionHawk is a small, robotic plane that can fly between water sources. Its developers mounted a pump on its pontoons to allow the drone to carry water samples back to the lab for testing.

According to Ernest Earon, PrecisionHawk president and co-founder, “the oil industry is beginning to look at a number of different uses in both upstream and downstream product stages, as well as environmental mitigation practices." He says companies are looking to use drones to make their operations more efficient and accurate while replacing people in dangerous jobs, such as stack inspection without having to shut down the stack.

“Drones are doing the dull, dirty, and dangerous work that we relied on people to do previously," he says.

A Variety of Designs

The Wave Glider is a 6'x10" floating device (similar in design to a surfboard) connected to a submerged glider by an electromagnetic cable. The glider is equipped with a set of articulating fins that passively convert kinetic energy from wave action into 1.3 kN of thrust. It also has a series of solar panels to power the vehicle. The Wave Glider features an onboard computer with programmable directions and remote control, a 12-channel GPS receiver and a tilt-compensated compass with three-axis accelerometers and a water speed sensor.

Command of the glider can be accessed securely from any computer or mobile device via an online user interface. Information is relayed through a satellite link, allowing pilots to program the craft's route, steer it and issue other course commands. It has a navigational accuracy of more than 3 meters and can be deployed all year-round in shallow waters or in the presence of cyclones or hurricanes.

“Our system is always on the surface of the water, and therefore always connected via Internet. In addition, it carries no fuel and can stay offshore as long as there are waves, sunlight and at least 8 meters of clear water column. “says Pai. Liquid Robotics offers additional sensor payloads, allowing the Wave Glider to adapt to a variety of applications. With the ability to monitor marine mammals, turbidity, seismic activity and other activities, oil companies can monitor their off-shore interests. For future iterations of the Wave Glider, Liquid Robotics hopes to provide more speed (it currently runs at 2.25 knots) as well as improved solar panels and a larger battery reservoir for back-up power.

The Seaglider drone can dive up to 1km in depth. Image source: KongsbergThe Seaglider drone can dive up to 1km in depth. Image source: KongsbergKongsberg's Seaglider was designed with no externally moveable parts, reducing the risk of error or damage. When maneuvered underwater, it uses a propulsion method powered by wings and minor adjustments in buoyancy. The company says this method conserves energy and propels the Seaglider in a saw-tooth pattern, allowing it to dive up to 1,000 meters. It periodically returns to the surface to transmit data, receive commands and calculate its location with a 3-axis compass and iridium antenna combined with GPS. It also navigates via an internal acoustic transponder and altimeter that measure vehicle heading, depth and diving attitudes, while its external sensors scan for water properties.

The AUV was developed in the 1990s in a collaborative effort between the Applied Physics Laboratory and the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington. Funding for the development was provided by the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research.

The Seaglider supports a variety of sensors and accessories, allowing oil companies to configure each vehicle for their needs. It can test for a variety of data including seismic activity and chemical oceanography or plumes. The data it transmits is available in real time and stored in the cloud for global access and secure backup.

Airborne Monitoring

The smaller and lighter PrecisionHawk weighs in at 1.3 kilograms, is less than 1 meter long, and runs on brushless electric motors, which allow it to fly silently. While the need to transport water to the lab for testing may limit its possibilities in comparison to the Wave Glider or the Seaglider, the PrecisionHawk drone's ability to pond hop allows it to cover a large area without having to be deployed in each water source.

The PrecisionHawk drone aircraft is less than 1m long and is powered by electric motors. Image source: PrecisionHawkThe PrecisionHawk drone aircraft is less than 1m long and is powered by electric motors. Image source: PrecisionHawk “Historically, water samples have been made by a few guys in a boat, which is expensive — particularly in remote areas," says Earon. The intention was to serve as a people multiplier, to extend the reach and vision, and to "touch things we have been previously unable to touch."

Beyond water sampling, PrecisionHawk offers oil companies ambient air quality testing and methane detection. Like the Wave Glider and the Seaglider, PrecisionHawk offers the option to mix and match a variety of sensors, including visual, hyperspectral, thermal and Lidar.

Onboard computers can chart flight, take-off and landing paths, and can collect data and connect to Wi-Fi networks once a survey is complete to transfer data in real time. It can also adapt to current weather conditions without manual interference from the pilot, allowing it to adjust its flight path in mid-flight and collect data in any environment. Once transferred, this data is automatically processed for easy comprehension.

Seaborne and aerial gliders may provide a solution to the oil industry's need to test and monitor a variety of water sources. At a fraction of the cost of manned boats and with fewer risks, gliding vehicles may be the next wave of cost-effective technology for oil and gas companies.