Why are oil and gas operators hesitant about deploying robotics?

Oil and gas companies are refraining from deploying robotics. But does this mean operators are missing opportunities? Axora asked Mike Currie, Vice President of Marketing and RevOps at Gecko Robotics. 


contact-Jay Gujral

Jay Gujral

Account Director

From rich data to increased safety benefits, robotic technology has plenty of potential benefits to the energy industry. So it may come as a surprise that operators are less inclined to trial and deploy robots compared to other solutions.

The results of the first annual Axora Innovation Forecast bear out that trend. We surveyed senior decision makers from across oil and gas about their progress and experiences with digital transformation. When asked about technologies they weren’t going to trial or deploy, five percent of respondents chose robotics, more than any other option listed.

This reaction begs the question: why aren’t more oil and gas companies interested in making robotics a part of their digital transformation agenda? And what benefits do robots offer that operators can’t get anywhere else?

The value today 

In oil and gas, robotics deployments generally focus on applications where operators need: 

  • A high level of certainty 

  • High-quality data 

  • To mitigate risk in situations with a high consequence of failure 

  • To work with riskier assets  

One example Currie cites is a pressure vessel. “You need a clear understanding of a pressure vessel’s remaining life. Preparing for an internal inspection is hazardous, costly and time consuming. In many cases, robotics can collect the data externally – more quickly and safely than humans – while keeping the asset on-line.” 

Broadly speaking, Currie says, the current trend is to use robots with equipment in the second half of an asset’s life, because that’s when the risks are higher and data quality is more important. 

Why so hesitant? 

Currie believes there are three main reasons why oil and gas companies have hesitated to deploy robotics.

The first revolves around efficiency. Technicians don’t require extensive preparation; they can walk onto a site and start taking measurements immediately. Before a robot can operate, though, it needs to be set up and calibrated, which can take a few hours. In certain environments robots, despite constant improvements, lack the agility of a human being. While robots can operate there, operators may still be more inclined to send a person to carry out an inspection.

Robots do overcome time deficits by processing more data faster, but Currie notes that operators still believe that a robot’s preparation time makes the process less efficient for smaller jobs.  

We’ve seen robots reduce tank inspection times from four weeks to four days using less manpower – leading to 75 percent savings.

Another obstacle relates to cost. The data from robots is often ten times better, but it comes at a premium. “Not all operators are ready to put the extra data into action, and may balk at the higher price tag,” says  Currie. “The challenge for robotics companies is to bring the price point down so it’s within a typical budget, but at the same time giving companies lots of extra data that delivers tremendous value.” 

The third adoption barrier relates to skills gaps. Robots require different skills with different pathways than established NDT certifications. Many companies deploying these technologies are building mini centres of excellence to help drive competencies. 

As Currie explains: “Not only do you need skills to operate and maintain the robots, but you also need a different mindset. You still need to know your problem areas, but then you have to let the robot work for you by collecting the right dataset. Then, it’s about being able to analyse and interpret the data, post collection vs. immediately during collection.” 

An efficient, safe and data-enabled future 

Over the short and medium term, Currie recommends focusing on two areas for robotics: better return on investment from enriched data and safety enhancements. 

With robotics, operators can quickly boost data quality by 1,000 percent. Having that high-quality, accurate data allows them to make more targeted decisions on their maintenance spend. Companies can therefore reduce already-substantial maintenance costs while also generating savings by speeding up inspection times. 

Autonomous inspection and cleaning protocols have incredible potential to remove people from risky situations.

Think of it this way, Currie  recommends: “One dollar of inspection expense drives $10 of maintenance investment, which drives $100 of operational plant output. Robots help you build a robust business case for spending that $10 correctly, so you get the right outcomes from the $100. And at the same time, we’ve seen robots reduce tank inspection times from four weeks to four days using less manpower – leading to 75 percent savings.” 

Then there’s the safety side, because there’s a huge benefit to having robots carry out hazardous tasks. Internal tank inspections are just one example. Instead of having to empty and clean tanks to be safe for human entry, operators can use a robot to conduct an in-depth external shell examination that gives them the exact information they need. Autonomous inspection and cleaning protocols have incredible potential to remove people from risky situations.

By enabling greater efficiency, better decision making and safer working conditions, robots can therefore play a useful role in helping energy companies save money and future-proof operations. 

Learn more about digital trends shaping operator responses to the coming hydrocarbon boom and energy transition. Get the full report here.  

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