Offshore technology - a space-age concept?

Adapting space technologies could be the key to simpler, greener, safer and more secure offshore operations. Elisabeth Fischer explores the similarities between the two sectors, which although very different at first glance, share crucial commonalities such as a harsh work environment and extremely remote operations.


Although space and offshore seem like two completely unrelated and divergent industries at a first glance, after looking closer one will find many similarities. Both share challenges involving working in extremely remote and often unexplored areas.

Technology and humans have to withstand extremely harsh working environments in both sectors and companies and research institutions are constantly on the lookout for technologies to make space as well as offshore operations simpler, safer and more secure.

"Safety is the common factor driving the exploration of space technology in the offshore industry."

Many space-based materials and technologies could one day be successful spin-offs benefitting the global oil and gas industry. The opportunities seem plentiful: sensors carried by planetary landers to measure magnetic fields could be used for oil and gas drilling tools; underwater vehicles and manipulators could adapt robotic technology and techniques for docking spacecraft with millimetre-accuracy; adding intelligence to new autonomous oil and gas underwater vehicles and the 'hot gas pressure forming' technique to attain extremely corrosion-resistant titanium could help to solve decay problems with offshore underwater equipment.

Now, oil and gas service giant Schlumberger is venturing into this new area, trying to combine two industries that work at the leading edge of technological standards.

Using satellite-based software, the company's researchers have been looking at new ways to automate routine parts of the oil drilling business.

This new and exciting approach could not just make drilling for oil easier and safer, benefitting both offshore companies and the environment, but finally also make the world's most remote and forbidden environments accessible for offshore operations.

Software from outer space

"Offshore and space activities both need innovative solutions, skilled people and technology with extreme qualities. It is therefore natural to exchange knowledge and experience across these industries," said former Norwegian Minister of Petroleum and Energy and now And√łya Rocket Range managing director Odd Roger Enoksen leading up to energy event ONS in August 2010, where experts from the space and offshore industry met to discuss how existing space-based technologies can help in offshore exploration to profit both sectors.

With the help of UK-based developer of IT-services SciSys, under the technology transfer programme (TTP) at the European Space Agency (ESA), Schlumberger now tries to make this vision reality. Using software originally developed to support routine telecom satellite operations, the company has found that many tasks on an oil rig could use the same type of automation that works on satellites.

The trialled software is SciSys' automated procedure execution (APEX), a generic portable procedure definition and execution tool that enables automation of spacecraft testing and spacecraft operations. Usually, the software is used at satellites, including Eutelsat's TV satellites and Eumetsat's weather sentinels.

"Compared to deep-space missions, telecommunication satellites are relatively straightforward to control," said SciSys sales manager Chris Lee in a news release in early October 2011. "But there are a lot of tasks that must be regularly uploaded from the satellite control centre. These can range from minor course corrections to instructions on which way to point their transmitters.

"Instead of regularly typing in routine commands based on looking up operational procedures from the user manual, the same procedure can be captured as a graphical flowchart and automatically executed so the operator isn't required to be there the whole time. Since the software can provide immediate visual feedback, it becomes a sophisticated decision-making tool," said Lee.

Successful offshore trials

Even though the involved companies cannot give away any specific details about the project to date, Chris Lee announced in SciSys' press release published in early October 2011 that the software has been successfully tested in a number of trials with drill operators at the Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre in the UK and the company's engineering centre in Houston, US, including one live trial on an oil rig.

"With thousands of parameters monitored continuously, offshore installations are some of the most complex operations to monitor worldwide."

"Our trials with these procedures were very positive," Lee said. "It was clear that operators can take real benefit from tools that support but do not replace them."

According to Lee, offshore operators, who work often on 12-hour shifts in very challenging conditions, can often have so much information coming back at them that they feel overwhelmed with the amount of data they have to handle.

By installing SciSys's automation software, they would be able to focus on the key tasks of their jobs that involve human decision-making and "leave repetitive tasks to the computer."

An updated version of SciSys software will go through a second round of tests later in 2011 to prove it is both safe and reliable. Furthermore, the company plans to train drilling operators in how to write and employ their own procedures in order to put the software through more realistic paces.

"If this goes well, we hope to have our system up and running on oil rigs in the next few years," Lee stated.

Monitoring oil and gas fields with space technology

Schlumberger's trials are not the first occasion of the offshore industry trying to adapt space technology. In 2009, the start-up company EATOPS, a spin-off of ESA, developed a system to monitor offshore oil and gas installations using technology for the monitoring and control of satellites.

With thousands of parameters being monitored continuously, offshore installations are some of the most complex operations to monitor worldwide. Using experience gathered through monitoring satellites and the handling of emergency situations in space, EATOPS designed the remote intuitive visual operations system (RIVOPS) that combines the parameters into clusters and provides a clean, graphical and perceptive overview of all emergency situations that can occur in an oil rig through applying a series of filtering algorithms.

RIVOPS co-inventor Alexandre Van Damme explained in a statement in June 2009: "Within seconds, the operator can identify where alarms originate and, more importantly, how they are related. RIVOPS can constantly supervise large installations, such as the ones for oil and gas fields, and provide the operators with a sharp understanding of the emergency scenario in real-time, which increases the overall safety on the rigs."

In comparison to many other industrial monitoring systems, RIVOPS uses 3D representations to display the status of all parameters, which was originally developed for satellite control in order to improve visibility. For offshore, this feature means new ways of spotting faults and improving safety on rigs.

Safety is paramount

Just like Schlumberger's trials with satellite software, EATOPS' system is still under evaluation and is being tested by several North Sea installations in Norwegian and Dutch waters. According to Van Damme, it could provide additional safety for future exploration planned for the Arctic area, where the fragile polar ecosystem and extremely harsh conditions call for extra careful operations and monitoring.

"Offshore and space activities both need innovative solutions, skilled people and technology with extreme qualities."

Safety is the common factor driving the exploration of space technology in the offshore industry, which has recently been warned on several occasions to increase safety and security, after years that saw rising numbers of injuries to workers and other serious accidents.

The significance of space technology for the improvement of safety of operations has also been recognised by other leading members of the industry. In June 2009, the first Space and Energy conference in Stavanger, Norway, was held at Statoil's head offices, with more than 70 companies taking part. The speakers included representatives from ESA and Nasa.

The organisers now plan to make the conference in Stavanger an annual event organise the summit as a part of one of the world's leading oil and energy industry meeting places, the biennial ONS. In the Space and Energy Park at the 2012 events, experts from the space and offshore industries will meet once again to discuss the technology transfer between the two sectors to reach the common goal of easy, safe and environmentally friendly offshore operations.