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Unattended facilities – a future vision or within our grasp today?

It’s 2030. New facilities and field clusters are fully electrified. Drones autonomously patrol the skies and underwater infrastructure, checking for leaks or integrity issues. Robots inspect, assess, maintain and report back on topside process equipment health to their human supervisors in remote operations centres (ROCs) onshore.

This vision of an unattended asset future might sound a little far-fetched, but is it? As an industry, we’re already accustomed to operating normally unattended facilities (NUFs). They have been around since the 1970s, albeit with relatively simple facilities, such as basic well pads.

Operators have also been converting fully attended facilities (FAFs) to NUFs. For example, Petronas’ Resak platform offshore Kertih, Terengganu, has been identified as a candidate platform to be remotely controlled from land at full scale. The currently manned facility is undergoing conversion for remote operations via implementation of automation, robotics, and AI measures. It will transition from full board offshore manning to lean manning and eventually to fully unmanned operation.

NUF design principles are also being applied to medium complexity facilities. Equinor’s Krafla process platform in the Norwegian North Sea, for example, is being designed to operate as a NUF.

Why? There are many benefits: reduced HSE risk exposure to personnel, lower capital and operating costs, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and reliability equal to, or better than, attended facilities.

So why aren’t more new facilities being designed as NUFs, and why don’t we convert some of our more complex facilities to be unattended?

We’re seeing advances across other sectors where operations are now largely controlled remotely, from mining to medical and manufacturing to automotive. Consumer technology, from ever more autonomous cars to virtual reality (VR) headsets, is also supporting a world where we don’t have to be on-site.

Some of these commercially available products can, and already are, being used in service of NUF. Take VR headsets. If we have a NUF that we only visit once a year for a maintenance campaign, personnel can familiarize themselves with the site, its layout and equipment before they visit. Neptune Energy is using VR headsets, combined with a digital twin, to enable virtual platform visits.

Drones have also become part of the standard toolbox for facility inspection, as well as now also methane detection and even for delivering 3D printed parts.

Remotely operated vehicle piloting is being done from onshore ROCs, subsea resident drones are being developed to provide on-demand services at the seabed, and mobile robots that can survey, sense, read and analyse meters are making their first, albeit tentative steps (or tracks), at on and offshore facilities.

Of course, there is more that needs to be done to enable NUF operations, from robust and secure communications to new materials and coatings that need less maintenance, as well as equipment that is reliable for longer. There are many technological, logistical, financial and regulatory challenges.

To help our members unpick these challenges, to understand the gaps and identify the enablers, our NUF Task Force has recently published a Normally Unattended Facilities white paper. They’ve looked at everything from quick wins for brownfield facilities to what we’ll need to enable fully NUF greenfield facilities.

Their view is that there are no showstoppers. In some areas, we need to act now to qualify equipment for NUF application. But many of the enablers are also ready today. Electrification, for example, is possible today, but it will need to be global, i.e., from downhole to trees to rotating machinery.

The white paper highlights how partial or gradual NUF adoption at brownfield sites could be beneficial, supporting safety, cost reduction and equipment reliability, as well as enabling workforce familiarity with NUF operations and demonstrating the potential for NUF concepts in greenfield applications. NUF adoption, even partial, could even help us look at asset life extension differently.

As we know from experience, industry alignment will offer opportunities, standardising components specifically designed for NUF operations, so they can be ‘plug and play’, for example. Here we can lean on some of the work done in industry initiatives such as IOGP’s JIP33. But operators will also need to rely on the wider supply chain to support and deliver change.

And of course, there will need to be a high level of change management. Skillsets will change, so retraining will be required. Codes, standards and regulations will also need to be maintained to keep pace. This is an area IOGP is now investigating, including any possible impacts on current codes, standards, and regulations.

It might sound daunting and there will be a lot of work to be done. As you can read for yourself in the white paper, we’re certainly not starting from scratch; a lot of good work has been done already. This is an operating regime that isn’t entirely new to us and many of the enabling technologies, from maintenance robotics to communications infrastructure, are within our grasp.

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