NASA information could aid robotic oil drill development

NASA is to help a Norwegian company developing robotic oil drills by sharing information about the Curiosity Mars rover.

Robotic Drilling Systems (formerly Seabed Rig) has signed an agreement with the US space agency that will enable the company to access some of the most advanced robotic software in the world.

The company hopes this will aid the development of its prototype autonomous drill, designed to help the oil industry expand its operations, particularly into more extreme environments, by overcoming the difficulties of recruiting more experienced staff.

NASA’s experience would help Robotic Drilling Systems with the autonomous decision-making aspects of its technology in particular, Kenneth Søndervik, the company’s head of sales and marketing, told The Engineer.

‘It can take 30 minutes to send data to Mars so they can’t remote control [the rover],’ he said. ‘The only thing they can do is tell it to walk from A to B. Between there could be big rocks, ravines, anything. So it’s up to the rover itself to decide how to get there.

‘And that is the same thing we want to learn. We don’t want the operation to stop; we don’t want it to be controlled by a human. We want to be able to say drill 3,000m. The only thing we want to know about is if there’s a dangerous situation.’

The prototype system includes robotic mechanisms for lifting and moving pipes around but also for picking up small parts and attaching them to each other. For this, the company worked with Stanford University to develop a three-fingered hand with touch-sensitive skin.

Decision-making programs are needed because the company wants to be able to apply the technology to any drilling rig in order to make it operate more efficiently, and so it needs to be able to adapt to the situation.

So far, Robotic Drilling Systems has successfully analysed around 90 per cent of the tasks that robotic drilling rigs will need to perform and is now adapting its system to be able to carry them out. It hopes to make the first robotic drill deck parts commercially available next year.

Alongside programming the control software, the challenge has been developing electrical equipment that can deal with pressures and masses as great as those managed by hydraulic systems.

Søndervik added that robotising drilling operations would mean fewer staff were required for each rig, but that instead of leading to a loss of jobs this would enable the industry to overcome its skill shortage issues and expand the number of wells it could drill.