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Thailand’s PTT Exploration and Production (PTTEP) has recently announced that it is driving development of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) for E&P activities, in partnership with a global oil services company.
The state-run firm is a subsidiary of Thailand’s state-run PTT, the country’s largest oil and gas firm. It signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Singapore-listed oil services company Mermaid Maritime in November, pledging to co-operate on AUV research and development to “develop a fully functional AUV for offshore petroleum exploration and production activities.”
Ultimately, the development process is expected to take this prototype from a concept through to a full-scale operational AUV that could be commercially used at all of the firm’s offshore operations.
PTTEP has already completed development of a laboratory-scale prototype AUV in 2015, following a co-operation agreement with the Faculty of Engineering at Bangkok’s Kasetsart University, signed in 2014. The vehicle programme was the first AUV technology R&D to be initiated in Thailand, a senior PTTEP official told InnovOil.
“PTTEP is the first company in Thailand that initiated an AUV project to fulfil specific in-house needs. We give utmost importance to technology development – our vision is to become leading Asian E&P company driven by technology,” he added.
Neither is this the first high-profile partnering. PTTEP has formed several MoUs to develop its own proprietary equipment in recent years. These include an agreement with French geophysical service company CGG to develop advanced seismic imaging technology in order to enhance seismic processing and interpretation capabilities, as well as with the US’ KJT Enterprises to develop electromagnetic imaging technology to improve reservoir imaging quality and subsurface geology. The latter in particular, the company notes, will aid “better analysis of petroleum potential and enhanced oil recovery [EOR] in mature fields.”
The most recent project will focus on the development of a new and novel type of hybrid AUV, or HAUV, specifically for use in subsea pipeline inspection, the official said.
The concept is comprised of two unmanned vehicles. The first is a compact, unmanned surface vehicle (USV), which tracks the subsea pipeline from the surface. The second vehicle is the HAUV which moves along the pipeline subsea and remains connected to the USV via a fibre-optic chain. A remote station on the surface controls the whole system, ensuring that both vehicles work together to inspect the infrastructure automatically.
Given their autonomous capabilities, HAUVs are expected to improve the efficiency of inspections and reduce the significant cost of doing so compared to other techniques such as operator-controlled remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), he said.
PTTEP has already tested two prototype AUVs in various environments. Since the beginning of its joint programme with Kasetsart University, the Thai firm has already made significant progress in testing its “Obsidian” and “Zeabus” robots.
The second-generation Zeabus variant is now being put through a rigorous testing phase, based on the lessons learnt from the first-generation Obsidian robots. So far, the Zeabus “demonstrated a good performance” at the 2015 International RoboSub competition in California, PTTEP added.
The competition involved a number of tasks which simulated subsea working conditions. Zeabus finished in the top 10 out of the total 39 participating teams, a vote of confidence suggesting that the Thai firm’s underwater expertise is “on par with other educational establishments around the world,” the firm said.
Underpinning the firm’s research and development is a strong belief in the growing necessity of AUVs for oil and gas operations. PTTEP, along with most E&P companies, “are increasingly being forced to conduct their subsea operations in more hostile conditions, which are farther afield and in deeper waters,” the firm told InnovOil. This is beginning to stretch the operational limits – and budgets – of conventional ROVs.
When asked if PTTEP had plans to sell the AUVs to either Thai or foreign oil and gas or marine companies, the official was cautious. He said that commercialisation was “a part of our plan” but that the “main objective is to fulfil the in-house specific needs.” That said, with stakes in numerous projects across the world, the technology should have no shortage pf potential deployments.
Partner Mermaid Maritime also stands to benefit, likely gaining additional ROV capabilities to add to its 2 Schilling work-class vehicles and 8 Saab Seaeye variants. The firm has conducted subsea work for a number of regional clients, including Chevron offshore Thailand, and Sakhalin Energy Investment in the Sea of Okhotsk.
If all goes to plan, the HAUV could be ready sooner rather than later. PTTEP is intending to complete the first pilot AUV by the end of 2016, before an official product launch and rollout in 2017 or 2018.
The programme also highlights the growing trend of NOCs looking to develop their own equipment. As costs are squeezed further, more state-run firms are leveraging the power of technical universities and partner organisations, or expanding the role of their technology ventures/M&A groups to pick up cutting-edge equipment at knock-down prices.
It is no surprise that PTTEP is keen to advance development of subsea technology for more hostile conditions. In the face of declining domestic reserves, and a dependence on foreign imports – the Southeast Asian nation imports around 85% of the crude oil it consumes – the government is pushing for the exploration of new offshore regions and an improvement in current output.
Although crude production in Thailand in the last ten years has grown moderately, it still falls short of domestic demand. Data from NewsBase Research suggest that in 2015, crude production fell to around 150,000 barrels per day, alongside an estimated 260,000 bpd from natural gas liquids (NGLs).
It is also a political issue. Parent company PTT – as well as the Thai government – has been the target of much recent criticism by Thai consumers, who believe that indigenous petroleum should be reserved for the country’s own use, claiming it would serve to keep the pump price lower. Not only this, but the weak price of oil is putting even further pressure on the firm’s operations: last year, PTT reported its largest-ever quarterly loss.
Despite government reforms aimed at boosting output, PTTEP has reduced its upstream investment in recent years, on the back of the country’s continued political unrest.
These pressures raise questions over the company’s 2014-2018 spending plans, which signalled an intention to invest 6% of its net profit in technology and R&D. With 2015 expenditure reduced by 25% and further cuts to its initial 2016 budget, the AUV programme will need to offer proven results quickly if it is to be a success.
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