With rising global demand for minerals and fossil fuels, evolving safety concerns, and the need to increase production and remain profitable, the resources sector is embracing Artificial Intelligence, Industry 4.0, and robotic solutions.
A shortage of skilled workers, decreasing ore grades, and stricter environmental and regulatory compliance requirements than ever before are making it challenging for resource-based businesses to balance production with profits, especially with market volatility, which worsened during COVID when mines were shut down because of outbreaks.
For the resources sector – mining, oil and gas in particular – robotics has become a true game-changer. From making dangerous operations safer to increasing production, a combination of robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), state-of-the-art software, and automated processes continues to streamline operations and save lives. From remote mine sites to onshore and offshore exploration and drilling, incorporating the latest robotics and AI simply makes sense.
Service and safety
From remote-control robotic vehicles performing underground mine inspections, to robotic drills, to drones flying overhead to record videos and send information back to users in real time, AI is fast becoming commonplace on larger sites. Instead of sending human workers, robotic vehicles are deployed for offshore oil rigs to perform maintenance and repairs with absolute safety.
Valuable in a variety of applications and processes, robotics and AI are used in all phases in oil, gas and mining, from exploration to decommissioning and everything in between. Taking the place of humans – who operate the devices remotely, from a safe distance – robots are outfitted with cameras, microphones, gas and thermal detectors, and other sensors, and walk around as they create 3D maps.
Perhaps one of the best examples of combining advanced technology while limiting risk is iron roughnecks. Originally coined to describe workers on oil rigs, ‘iron roughnecks’ are pieces of hydraulic machinery used to connect and disconnect drill pipe. Once a dangerous process performed manually by hand, modern technology has automated the handling of iron roughnecks, making the job much safer.
One of the most impressive oil and gas projects is the Oseberg H, which was manufactured with the motto ‘think big, build small.’ Fully automated, the oil and gas platform in the North Sea became the first of its kind when it came on stream in October 2018. Launched by Norwegian energy company Equinor (formerly Statoil), the platform represents a massive technological advancement since it is operated by remote control, fully automatic, and unmanned. Described at the time as “digitalisation in practice” by Anders Opedal, Equinor’s Executive Vice President for Technology, Projects and Drilling, the platform requires human maintenance just once or twice a year. The first platform of its kind on the Norwegian continental shelf (NCS), the Oseberg H resembles other offshore oil platforms from the outside, except for being as bare bones as possible. Inside, one of the most noticeable absences is a toilet. “Oseberg H is a pilot and our first unmanned platform. We are further developing the concept and believe that the next version will be even more competitive,” added Opedal in a media release.
For Equinor, which operates in 30 countries worldwide, the cost of the Oseberg H – about NOK 6.5 billion (2018 NOK) – is actually over 20 percent less than the cost estimate of the plan for development and operation (PDO), according to the company. “The breakeven price is reduced from USD 34 to below USD 20 per barrel, further strengthening a development that is already highly profitable.”
The need for speed
In the resources sector, timing is crucial. In mining, demand for production can exceed the capacity of human workers, as demand for elements like lithium – crucial to the manufacture of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries – has skyrocketed 432 percent this year alone, primarily because of its use in the growing worldwide electric vehicle (EV) market, Smart phones, and other electronic devices. As a result, mining and other resource sectors are producing as fast as possible, with the help of robotics and automation.
There is no doubt the need for machines to replace people will continue to be a factor not only here on Earth, but in space, as the likelihood of asteroid mining grows. Some may say the costs would be astronomical; the same could have been said years ago of mine sites and oil and gas drilling before robots and Artificial Intelligence.
The value of the industrial robotics market speaks for itself. Last year, it was an estimated $41.7 billion USD and is projected to almost double, by 2028, to $81.4 billion USD, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 11.8 percent between 2022 and 2028. While this figure encompasses other industries such as manufacturing, reasons for growth remain consistent: processes are carried out safely, with little or no risk to human workers, and production is sped up and more efficient. While the initial capital investment costs of AI, robotics and automation may seem prohibitive, the long-term benefits often outweigh the price.
Along with increasing production and safety, robots have another distinct advantage over human workers: they can enter and evaluate places most people cannot go because of unfavourable conditions, from frigid colds to blistering desert heat and other health, safety and environment (HSE) challenges. Since resources like oil and gas are often found in remote, inhospitable locations and climates, it is much easier to send in robots – guided remotely by skilled operators, semi-autonomous, or autonomous – to conduct site exploration or inspection, maintenance and repair (IMR). Whether up in the air via unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or on or below the ground through in-pipe inspection robots (IPIRs) and tank inspection robots (TIRs), routine processes can be completed quickly, efficiently, and safely.
Just as in the oil and gas sector, mining will continue to utilize robotics and AI, in the forms of self-driving trucks, automated loaders, and even trains transporting materials from mine sites to ports, where they are loaded and sent out for processing. Remote control mining loaders and trucks, for example, can be equipped with dozens of sensors measuring weight, evaluating vehicle performance, checking for hazards, gauging ventilation, and tracking mileage to ensure peak operational efficiency.
In just the past five years, robotics technology has advanced considerably, as have manufacturing and components. Robots are lighter and more durable, and are becoming less expensive. Capable of flying overhead to inspect sites and perform mapping, going far below ground to determine air quality and potential hazards, and even going sub-sea near offshore oil rigs to perform inspections and check for any potential issues, AI and robotics offer a breadth of applications – and their take-up is growing. In fact, a recent report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) states that robotics and drones are expected to become the biggest adopted technologies – with the greatest growth in the oil and gas sector over the coming three to five years.