Demand for remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) in the offshore oil and gas industry, which uses ROVs for well drilling and development, production facility construction and inspection, repair and maintenance, will continue to grow as strong oil prices and the global economy recovery spur worldwide exploration and development efforts.
Since its establishment in 1985, Schilling Robotics has primarily focused on ROV development for the oil and gas industry. The company's slogan, "So Deep, No One Comes Remotely Close," sums up the company's aim of expanding the technical capabilities of ROVs.
The evolution of subsea systems from mostly static to more dynamic and complex mean that ROVs must be capable of performing complex tasks, said Tyler Schilling, CEO and founder and Schilling Robotics. This evolution has occurred as exploration and production efforts move further in the world's deepwater regions.
Last year, the company launched its Heady Duty (HD) ROV system that can accommodate specific needs of the inspection, maintenance and repair, drill support and medium-duty construction markets. Schilling won the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) Spotlight on Technology award for its HD ROV, which is rated for 13,123 feet (4,000 m) to allow for more effective remote deepwater intervention.
Development of this ROV was driven by Schilling's goal of wanting an ROV that could conduct service and repair activities in less than an hour. "Changing out a pump on a conventional hydraulic power unit can take three to six hours to do properly, and is expensive, with the most expensive as much as $9 a second to operate," Schilling said. "Being able to eliminate a three to five hour repair operation is a huge savings for our customers." Schilling said efforts are underway to map these technologies for fast service and repair for Schilling's UHD ROV model.
The Davis, California-based company has been collaborating with FMC Technologies to improve remote intervention of subsea equipment. Schilling accepted an investment from FMC in the company last year because "the direction we believe remote intervention needs should go in are related," said Schilling. While Schilling conducted all the development work on its HD ROV, input from FMC helped Schilling better understand the requirements that oil and gas companies have for ROV technology.
As part of this collaboration, Schilling has been working to developing an ROV system in which the camera and other equipment will target visual aids that FMC has installed on its subsea equipment panels. This allows the ROV system to do automatic work on the panels. Developing ROVs and subsea equipment together makes for more efficient and effective subsea intervention operations, Schilling said. "We believe further extensions of this technology will have ROVs capable of reading codes from those symbols and knowing what the characteristics of those underwater devices. This means that operators will not need to keep track of quite as much specification information. Information will be automatically retrieved, not unlike bar coding at the store that tells the cash register what item you're scanning."
This joint development is a new practice within the energy industry, but if we can cut the time it takes to do a single activity, it would really help customers, Schilling said. "It's not uncommon to have a circumstance in which an ROV can't actually perform the activity intended by the sea floor equipment designer, so operators have to improvise offshore to get a task done," Schilling said. "We're trying to bring about circumstances in which the ROV and the subsea floor equipment are designed together."
Since the Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, which brought ROV and other offshore work in the region to a halt, Schilling has seen its customers wanting accessories for ROVs that allow them to deliver fluids, and that can override a blowout preventer at a much higher rate. While the BOP is typically actuated from the drilling rig, an ROV can be used as a backup if remotely closing it fails. The ROV will fly over the BOP with a hot stab, plug the hot stab into a panel, causing it to close.
One general trend Schilling sees for ROVs is greater degree of automation, or intent interface, for ROVs. "Rather than an operator pushing all the little buttons to make this complicated machine work, they tell the machine what they intend to do, and the machine takes care of the rest," Schilling said.
This trend has led Schilling to focus on making machines easy to use as their use in offshore oil and gas grows. The company has developed a method to simplify hot stabs, which are used to power hydraulic tools, transfer fluid, perform chemical injections, and to monitor pressure, in which a robot arm on the ROV places a hot stab in a receptacle on a subsea tree.
Schilling also has developed a stationkeeping system for its UHD and HD ROVs to automatically position an ROV; before that, ROVs had to be controlled manually, meaning an ROV pilot would have to monitor the ROV's position in relation to a Christmas tree and issue corrective commands through a joystick. Now, a computer monitors the ROVs' position, allowing the pilot to focus on the job he or she is getting paid for, which is getting quality video, Schilling said..
Additionally, the company has developed a wrist-mounted camera to allow ROV pilots to perform closer inspection tasks. This product is available to any customer who buys a manipulator from Schilling.
Breakthroughs in silicon and software technology enabled the evolution of cars, and Schilling believes the adaptation of more silicon and software in subsea equipment and ROVs will help the oil and gas industry take advantage of the efficiencies of productivity. However, the cost of packaging electronics for use in the ocean is huge, and many times more expensive than in other industries. Serviceability of parts, which is expensive, is another hurdle.
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