Oil Field Automation and Robotics

In recent IDC surveys, oil and gas IT professionals reported that the top strategies to cope with low oil prices, with regards to IT investments, are to deploy automation more quickly, complemented by advanced business intelligence and analytics for optimization purposes. IDC Energy Insights believes that robotics and related automation are integral components of the digital transformation process and need to be included in operational and IT architecture requirements and plans.

Automation of the oil field is rapidly becoming a reality as IT merges with OT and leading manufacturer’s like work closely with communications and network vendors to create an integrated framework environment that supports oil field IoT data. The net objective is to manage the great quantities of oil field data in a platform for purposes of monitoring and managing device operations for improved uptime and also for optimized production.

The oil field environment in onshore shale includes communications in the form of mesh networks such that people, devices, equipment and other resources can be immediately connected to monitor, manage collaborate and perform work as soon as they physically arrive at the site.  Analytics will also play a large part to optimize production as oil field modeling and simulation of key criteria will help determine the best optimization strategies to deploy.

Cognitive computing is one of the rising stars in innovation and a top IT initiative in the industry today.  Cognitive promises the ability to quickly sift through xabytes of oil field-related data to discover a wealth of high-impact opportunities to improve accuracy and performance in the oil field by combining machine-learning with human reasoning and senses of perception. Cognitive processing could very possibly be the foundation of the autonomous robot.


Oil and gas technologies will become more ruggedized and costly to operate in the coming future due to hostile, hard-to-reach environments. The offshore oil industry consists of many advanced and complicated equipment, structures, and multi-disciplined work force team members.  With a proper knowledge of oil and gas rig environments, industrial robotics and automation opportunities are less abstract for drilling, and these processes must be analyzed and diligence applied to determine the value of robotics and automation in specific onshore/offshore environments.

Robotics in the onshore oil field is especially valuable when it is a drilling rig capable of moving itself around an oil field from one well location to the next. Here are some of the ways robotics is being used:

  • For drilling, the big opportunity is for entire rigs that can be moved, or move themselves to reduce dramatic costs and increase efficiencies in oil field development. some examples include:
    • A simple implementation is Drilling Structures International uses a John Deere engine in conjunction with a drilling rig to be able to pick itself up and move to the next location.
    • Patterson-UTI has walking rig safety, speed, and efficiency are combined to help our customers execute their multi-well pad drilling programs successfully.
    • At the high-end of capabilities, Robotic Drilling Systems, (RDS) company is developing a drilling rig capable of advanced reasoning, and has signed an information-sharing agreement with NASA to discover how to develop an oil rig to be able to erect itself, drill a well, and then move on to the next well.
    • Shell Oil is leading a new graduate-level engineering program with the University of Texas at Austin on automated drilling

Offshore use of robotics is especially useful for replacing humans to perform tasks at great depths for greater safety, accuracy and efficiencies.  Underwater submersibles are used a great deal for inspection and repair and continue to evolve to be more self-maneuverable and independent to perform a wider range of activities.

  • Robotics are excellent for underwater inspection and repair and some solutions include:
    • RDS has plans to build and leverage a 10 foot, robotic arm with an elbow joint that can perform much of the manual labor of a deckhand and other crew member, with the ability to lift a ton of weight and maneuver it into desired location.
    • MIT is working with oil and gas companies on the next generation of remote underwater vehicles and has created a working prototype of an autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV), with the goal of further developing it into a complete functional ROV, untethered for agility, with advanced functionality, and a complete communication system giving the human operator more data, analytics and greater flexibility and control to go where no man has gone before, and literally do what humans cannot deep below the surface.
    • New robotics solutions will be deployed under the sea as man learns to bring computers and human reasoning closer together to develop new capabilities to solve important offshore problems especially in harsh environments for humans.
    • Statoil has projected that automation may cut in half the number of workers needed on an offshore rig and help complete jobs 25 percent faster.

In addition to the robotics initiatives specific to onshore and offshore, companies are also working on robotics to perform other important tasks.  Some companies are embedding robot-like intelligence into devices and tools to improve accuracies and enable great maneuverability and performance such as sensors and intelligence in a drilling bit to help direct speed, direction and communications with GPS satellites, networks to make real-time decisions about how to get around obstacles and avoid unwanted events.

Robotics-like drones are being deployed along pipelines with cameras and other sensing devices to enable real-time inspection for leaks and other potential security or HSE violations and even disasters that might occur.   Drones and cameras are estimated to generate high volumes of image data that will flow across the oil field to be analyzed especially along pipelines to detect pipe leaks and other security and compliance-related issues preferably before they occur.

IDC forecasts the following for the future with regards to robotics in oil and gas:

  • By 2018, the average selling price of an industrial robot will be one fifth of what it is today, but have 5 times the capability!
  • By 2016, 80% of market potential is untapped due to safety and privacy concerns
  • By 2018, 30% of drones are not owned, but managed by third parties -accelerating deployments
  • By 2018 50% of underwater submersibles will be unattached, self-propelled and with greater maneuverability, dexterity and task-performing capabilities like welding, inspection, and communications.
  • By 2018 autonomous robotics will appear in the oil field leveraging new sensors, tools and capabilities like; machine vision, force sensing, speech recognition, advanced mechanics
  • By 2020, 50% of supply chain jobs will be eliminated through automation, robotics and the use of new technologies like cognitive computing and robotics


As technology evolves, and oil and gas companies strive to achieve operational efficiencies, we should expect more innovations, more cost-effective robotic configurations, and more applications as companies learn how to exploit the value of robotics. The potential is dramatic because soon robots will offer not only improved cost-effectiveness, but also advantages and operations capabilities that have never been possible before.


There is a clear incentive for oil and gas companies to automate their oil and gas facilities and activities where appropriate. Investing in robotics and IoT technology is an innovative way to complement the digital transformation strategy to achieve: operational efficiencies, reduce safety risk, access more remote areas, and provide more transparency into remote operations.