Unmanned Vehicles and Robotics Gain Momentum

(SPE/IADC 178244)
A sea-surface unmanned vehicle is shown tethered to a submerged vehicle by an umbilical.

For decades, the oil industry has been using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). They have been instrumental in the development of oil and gas fields in deep water. ROVs are only one class of what is commonly known as unmanned vehicles (UVs), which are increasingly finding more applications in the industry in sea, land, and air. This article examines some of the current and potential applications of this emerging technology in our industry. It complements recent online articles in OGF and TWA on the subject (Wilby 2016; Howell 2017; Whitfield 2017).


Like most emerging technologies, the UV category has its own evolving, and sometimes inconsistent, jargon that can be a bit confusing to those not familiar with the technology. The term “unmanned” refers to the fact that there is no human pilot on board. Obviously in all situations humans are involved in the operation and monitoring of the vehicles’ use.

At present, there are no formal or standard definitions for the terminology used. Multiple terms are used in different countries and by various manufacturers, which in many cases refer to the same concept. Some of the commonly used acronyms are defined at the end of this article.

UVs can be broadly classified as remotely operated or autonomous. An ROV is connected to the base station or support ship by a tether or an umbilical cable, which transfers power and control signals between the base station and the vehicle. An autonomous unmanned vehicle (AUV) is not physically connected to the base station or support ship. Its mission is preprogrammed before it is put in operation.   

UVs are also classified by the environment in which they operate. The vehicle may or may not be autonomous.

  • Sea: Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV),
  • Land: Unmanned surface vehicles (USV)
  • Air: Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones

The terms robots and robotics are also used loosely in the context of unmanned vehicles. Robots are electromechanical (mechatronic) computer-driven machines that perform complex or repetitive tasks. An AUV can be considered a robot, along with ROVs that have robotic arms to perform physical tasks underwater.

Oil Companies and the Development of Unmanned Vehicles

The main R&D work as well as application of the technologies of UVs was carried out by academia and the defense industry. SPE President Janeen Judah referred to “advanced robotics” and “autonomous or near-autonomous vehicles” as among the so-called disruptive technologies in her column in the January issue of JPT. “Disruptive technology” is defined as a new, emerging technology that unexpectedly displaces an established one. In other words, a technology that causes a step change in the industry.

Recognizing the importance of UVs, some oil companies collaborated with the manufacturer of UVs as well as academia, created joint ventures, and in some cases, initiated their own R&D programs. The remaining parts of this article will show how international oil companies, national oil companies, and service companies are adopting the emerging technologies of UVs to various applications to perform and support their operations on land, sea, and air.

Asset Integrity

In the oil industry, asset integrity is about the prevention of major accidents. The aim is to prevent the unplanned release of hydrocarbons that may either directly or indirectly via escalation result in a major accident. It is the outcome of good design, construction, and operating practice. UVs vehicles are used to verify the mechanical integrity and inspection activities of oil and gas production facilities such as plants, offshore platforms, subsea installations, and pipelines. Examples of various UV applications and development projects in the industry are described below.

  • Shell is developing a subsea-resident inspection AUV called FlatFish. The project began as a joint venture with the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, the Brazilian Institute of Robotics, and BG Group, now part of Shell (Albiez 2015). It aims to designing an AUV for repeated inspections of subsea structures while being submerged for extended periods of time. The goal is to have the AUV reside subsea and be capable of undocking from a submerged docking station, carry out a mission to inspect subsea installations, and then return to base, all without operator intervention.
  • Total and Chevron are jointly developing a new AUV to be able to do the same tasks currently being done by ROVs. This will allow the tasks to be performed four times faster, improving both safety and costs. 
  • BP has a long history of using ROVs and has recently been developing the capabilities of autonomous vehicles (BP 2016). The company has a fleet of UVs named marine autonomous systems (MAS), which include both autonomous surface vehicles (ASVs) and AUVs. According to BP, battery-powered and preprogrammed, MAS can quickly launch from sea, shore, or sky and remain independently active in the ocean for up to months at a time. BP is currently putting MAS to the test; it has partnered with manufacturer Oceaneering for a large-scale AUV trial ahead of a full roll-out to survey pipelines and subsea infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Clean Sea is a patented advanced robotic technology that originated from a successful R&D project by Eni and Tecnomare (Gasparoni 2016; Grasso 2016). It aims at providing a highly cost-effective solution to the increasing demand for both environmental and asset integrity monitoring in new and more challenging oil and gas developments, notably deep water and arctic areas. Clean Sea is built around a unique concept of hybrid, modular, and low-logistics ROV/AUV. It is easily reconfigurable for several applications, including environmental monitoring tasks, automatic water sampling, visual inspection of pipelines, subsea protection systems, jackets, and cathodic protection surveys.
  • Liquid Robotics Oil and Gas, a Schlumberger company, developed a novel autonomous marine vehicle (AMV), a hybrid sea-surface and underwater vehicle (Pai et al. 2016). It is capable of crossing thousands of kilometers of ocean to gather oceanographic data. The vehicle uses solar panels to power the electronics on the float and wave energy for propulsion. Once deployed, it uses no crew, requires no fuel, and produces no emissions. Two AMVs were used to conduct a baseline survey offshore North West Australia before commencing pipeline dredging work for the construction of two LNG trains and a domestic gas plant in Australia.
  • PTT Exploration and Production Public Company Limited (PTTEP) of Thailand is in the early stages of developing a novel hybrid AUV (HAUV) system, comprising two UVs and designed specifically for subsea pipeline inspection (Hoonsuwan 2016). The first vehicle is a compact unmanned surface vehicle (USV), which tracks a subsea pipeline from the sea surface. The second vehicle is an HAUV, which is connected to the USV via a fiber-optic tether. Both vehicles operate together to automatically inspect subsea pipelines. The complete system is controlled by a remote control station on the surface.
  • PTTEP also developed a multipurpose unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to perform a wide range of aerial monitoring and inspection applications (Kridsada 2016). PTTEP calls it a multipurpose plant inspection octocopter (MPIO). The MPIO project focuses on areas that are considered high-risk for human intervention and subsequently financially high-cost too. The MPIO has been designed and tested to perform various kinds of plant inspection; from offshore riser platform storage tank roofs to cooling tower observations.
  • A problem facing the oil industry in Nigeria is crude oil theft and pipeline vandalism (Idachaba 2016). The use of UAVs has been proposed to provide real-time images and videos of such activities as they are being carried out. This will allow the rapid deployment of military personnel in the event of detection of criminal activities or oil spill response team in the event of a leak.
  • Chevron Upstream Europe already used small UAVs to visually inspect flare tips on the Captain and Alba platforms in the UK North Sea. This has reduced the requirement for the installation of scaffolding and manual inspection of the tips, which are hundreds of feet above the water, thereby mitigating potential risk to employees and contractors.
  • Shell, North Caspian Operating Company, and Carnegie Mellon University collaborated to develop a robot which is named Sensabot (Peerless 2016). It can work on offshore platforms or in oil and gas fields in remote, hostile environments. The robot has four wheels and an extendable boom and contains an array of sensors and cameras. Operators from the safety of the control center can control the robot with joysticks as it feeds back live video and data.

Geoscience Applications

Researchers at the University of Houston developed what they call a seismic drone (Stewart et al. 2016). In their paper, they describe the design, testing, and potential of an UAV with seismic-sensing capabilities. The seismic- or vibration-sensing platform is attached to a drone. The geophone spikes become the drone’s landing legs.

Tests were conducted to compare the response of the landed seismic-drone system to planted geophones and a conventional cabled seismic system. The tests results showed that seismic traces from the drone are quite similar to those of the planted geophones.

UAVs also have the potential to be used for site reconnaissance and data collection tools in geoengineering, geology, and geoscience applications such as rock mass characterization. A small, low-cost UAV-mounted camera was used to map and characterize the landslide patterns caused by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake in Nepal (Greenwood et al. 2016).

Interested in a New SPE Technical Section for Unmanned Vehicles?

At present, SPE has 14 technical sections. A technical section represents a grouping of global SPE members who share an interest in a specific topic.

With the growing interest in unmanned vehicles, the possibility of forming a new technical section is being evaluated. The new technical section would deal primarily with the technologies and applications of unmanned vehicles and robotics in the oil industry. Its scope would include applications for unmanned vehicles and robotics in sea, land, and air.

Applications of remote control related to well drilling would be excluded from the new section as these applications are already covered under the Drilling Systems Automation Technical Section.

Any new technical section has to meet the criteria set by the SPE, e.g., the mission of a new technical section supports and furthers the SPE mission. There must be enough interest from SPE members to establish a new section

SPE members who are working in the area of unmanned vehicles and robotics, or would like to learn more about this emerging technology, can register their interest.

The initiative and efforts to investigate the possibility of forming a new section are led by Daniel De Clute-Melançon, Weatherford, and Ed Tovar, InTechSys.

A LinkedIn group and a temporary email have been set up for initial reference and communication: or


ROV               Remotely operated vehicle

AUV               Autonomous underwater vehicle

AAV               Autonomous air vehicle

AMV              Autonomous marine vehicle

ASV              Autonomous surface vehicle

MAS             Marine autonomous system

UAV              Unmanned aerial vehicle

UUV              Unmanned underwater vehicle

USV              Unmanned surface vehicle

UV                Unmanned vehicle


For Further Reading                                                                                                                                                                  

SPE 181409. 2016. A Robot that Removes Operators from Extreme Environments by Peerless, I. et al.

OTC 26576. 2016. Sustainability Through the Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for Aerial Plant Inspection by L. Kridsada et al.

OTC 26481. 2016. Development of a Novel Hybrid AUV System for Pipeline Inspection in Gulf of Thailand by P. Hoonsuwan et al.

SPE 179361. 2016. Clean Sea - Underwater Robotic Technology for Environmental and Asset Integrity Monitoring in Deep and Ultra-Deep Water by F. Gasparoni et al.

ARMA-2016-678. 2016. UAV-Based 3-D Characterization of Rock Masses and Rock Slides in Nepal by W. Greenwood et al.

ISOPE-I-16-572. 2016. Clean Sea Hybrid ROV/AUV for Asset Integrity Operations by T. Grasso et al.

SPE 178244. 2016. Managing Risks Around Rigs Using Autonomous Marine Vehicles by S. Pai et al.

SEG-2016-13973407. 2016 An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle With Vibration Sensing Ability (Seismic Drone) by R. Stewart et al.

Idachaba, F. 2016. Monitoring of Oil and Gas Pipelines by Use of VTOL-Type Unmanned Aerial. Oil and Gas Facilities.

Wilby, B. 2016. AUVs Gain Momentum in Oil and Gas Operations. Oil and Gas Facilities.

IEEE 2015. FlatFish-A Compact Subsea-Resident Inspection AUV, Conference Paper presented at OCEANS 2015 – MTS/IEE Washington by Albiez, J. et al.

Howell, K. 2017. Drone Piloting and Applying Drone Technology to the Oil Patch. The Way Ahead.

Whitfield, S. 2017. Hi-Tech Drones Take Flight for Inspections. Oil and Gas Facilities.

Judah, J. 2017. Disruptive Technology. Journal of Petroleum Technology, Vol. 69 (1).



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