May 2019

What's new in production

Snake eyes
Don Francis / Contributing Editor

“Oil industry’s future not as bright as government expects”—Houston Chronicle, Feb. 4, 2019

“Here Comes The Sun: The Bright Future Of Oil And Gas”—Seeking Alpha, March 2, 2019

Whatever your opinion of the outlook, you can find an expert loudly affirming it.

The industry is not going to close because it isn’t 100% sure of what’s going to happen next. Uncertainty isn’t impeding the march of technology. A case in point is Eelume, a disruptive (and entertaining) technology for subsea inspection, maintenance and repair (IMR).

This technology doesn’t march—it swims. The United Kingdom-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) describes Eelume as a “…machine [that] can ‘swim’ like a snake, using lateral undulation to provide thrust. The unmanned vehicle combines this with onboard motors for faster movement, and can straighten out like a torpedo for long-distance cruising.” As IME notes, engineers have always looked to nature for inspiration. Some call their work “biomimicry,” while others prefer the term “bio-inspired engineering.”

Eelume was established in 2015 as a spin-off from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). After a decade of research on snake robots in collaboration with research organization SINTEF, the organization began to pursue industrial subsea applications of these amazing mechanisms. A strategic partnership was formed with Kongsberg Maritime and Equinor (LOOP product development program) in 2016, to incorporate leading subsea experience and technology into the concept.

The result is the Eelume, a prototype IMR robot. This isn’t your father’s ROV:

  • It’s designed to live subsea by being connected to a docking station on the seabed, so it can be mobilized 24/7 without the need for a surface vessel. IMR capability near the subsea installations, without the need for surface vessels, means greener, safer and less-costly subsea operations.
  • Modularity makes it adaptable to a wide range of subsea operations. Modules can be connected in different combinations to form various types of vehicles.
  • The vehicle, itself, is a dexterous robotic arm that can operate tools and carry out intervention tasks.
  • The slender, torpedo-shaped vehicle can transit over long distances like a survey AUV.
  • The flexible, slender body can access, and operate in, restricted areas of subsea structures.

The robot’s eel-like flexibility is key. Its ability to twist and turn lets it travel through previously inaccessible gaps and wrap around installations. A modular configuration lets operators place joints, thrusters, maintenance tools and more where needed—a camera toward the back, for example, provides a great viewpoint for inspection and repair work.

Think of Eelume as a self-propelled robotic arm, whose slender, flexible body can transit over long distances and carry out IMR in confined spaces not accessible by conventional underwater vehicles. But, you can do more than think about it; just look at the eye-popping animation on the Eelume website. It looks like a trailer for a subsea science-fiction movie.

Kristin Aamodt, head of Equinor Technology Ventures (formerly Statoil Technology Invest), underscores its advantages. “The Eelume concept is a snake robot that will change the way today’s subsea platforms are maintained, and how tomorrow’s installations will be constructed. Today, all maintenance of our subsea systems is performed with advanced subsea vessels. They are large and heavy. They cost a lot to operate, and it can take time to mobilize them when a problem arises. With Eelume, half of the jobs can be performed much faster and more simply. The robot will be battery-operated and reside permanently on the seabed. In a special subsea garage, the equipment that is required can be attached to the snake robot, including cameras, brushes and various tools, before it is sent out on a job. In other words, it will be a bit like a ‘Subsea Swiss army knife’—always ready for action.”

First snake robot was Anna Konda. As noted, the history of snake robots started about 15 years ago, when NTNU and SINTEF began to collaborate on developing the technology. The first snake robot that saw the light of day was Anna Konda—you’ve got to love the name—a flexible robot designed to go into burning buildings to extinguish fires and thus avoid putting firefighters’ lives in danger. “In the early days, we developed several different, promising snake robots, but struggled to effectively integrate their function, design and use,” says Pål Liljebäck, Eelume technology manager.

Beyond the first generation. Subsequent versions of Eelume have introduced new capabilities. According to Kongsberg, the second-generation vehicle, demonstrated in 2017, had a depth rating of 500 m and was configured for light intervention. It was capable of operating a torque tool, cleaning tool, and other tasks as required. Operation of torque tools can be carried out by exploiting the dual-arm nature of the vehicle. In particular, one end of the arm can grab hold to fixate the vehicle, while the other end can operate the tool.

The third-generation Eelume was planned to be capable of tether-free operations. Internal batteries and on-board processors enable the vehicle to transit between structures autonomously.

“The robot we’re testing in…2019 is called EELY500. It has improved maneuverability over previous versions, a better camera and light, and a stronger battery and data capacity,” says Liljebäck. “Now Eelume is working on the docking station, where the robotic inspector will go to get charged and pick up tools before it heads out on new assignments.” WO

About the Authors
Don Francis
Contributing Editor
Don Francis DON@TECHNICOMM.COM / For more than 30 years, Don Francis has observed the global oil and gas industry as a writer, editor and consultant to companies marketing upstream technologies.
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