Rise of the Robots

From the Bank of England to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the predictions are dire: the robots are coming for your job. The WEF, for example, predicts up to five million jobs could go in the next five years. And this disruption is no longer limited to blue-collar jobs. Robot process automation and machine-learning will eliminate many business service and professional jobs previously thought immune to automation.

The oil and gas industry is, of course, no stranger to automation and robotics. Many smaller offshore platforms already operate on a “normally unmanned basis” to reduce costs while autonomous underwater vehicles and remotely-operated vehicles routinely undertake monitoring and intervention work in harsh subsea environments. Now drones are being used for aerial inspections of plant and pipelines; last year UK-based Sky-Futures even undertook the first internal inspection of a cargo tank on a floating production, storage and offloading vessel (FPSO), revolutionising the speed, cost and risks of this hazardous procedure. The coming years will see robots on the drill floor: Norwegian firm Robotic Drilling Systems has developed an autonomous robotic drilling rig, which promises a step change in safety while transforming the cost base, and the potential to save up to 40 rig days a year.

Little wonder, with margins under pressure from a protracted price slump, that oil companies are keen to investigate the potential of automation: one survey of oil and gas executives found more than half believe there’s the potential to automate nearly 50% of manual processes.[1] This will not only reshape the workforce; without easily-hurt humans to accommodate, offshore rigs, platforms and FPSOs could be radically redesigned, further reducing costs.

It’s not just robotic hardware that will transform future employment. Robot process automation is “robot software” that automates other software, running processes far more efficiently, accurately and cost-effectively than any human. This will have implications for many back office functions in the typical oil company, from lawyers and accountants to compliance, underwriting and human resources. Even public affairs could be automated, with artificial intelligence (AI)-powered chatbots and avatars taking over much consultation and outreach work.

Indeed, AI, machine learning and cognitive computing will threaten many highly paid roles, such as well engineering and geoscience. Currently about 99% of the data generated by an offshore production platform goes unanalysed[2], representing a huge missed opportunity to optimise operations, improve safety, reduce costs and boost production. Cognitive computing systems can crunch through vast datasets at speeds no human could match, spotting previously unimaginable patterns and anomalies. What’s more, AI-powered machines can learn from those findings to predict and anticipate next best steps.

One company, for example, saved US$250 million a year in downtime losses by using a cognitive system to combine drill-sensor data and unstructured data to predict stuck drill-bit incidents, delivering prediction confidence of up to 74% within a three-hour window. Another analysed 30 years of documented expertise (the equivalent of a human reading 24 hours a day for 5.3 years) in order to help engineers solve problems[3].

Indeed, there is an argument that AI will complement rather than supplant many roles, helping human decision-makers make better decisions to drive sustainable growth and profits, even in challenging economic times.


[1]     A New Reality for Oil & Gas: Complex Market Dynamics Create Urgent Need for Digital Transformation, Cisco White Paper, 2015
[2]     Of the 30,000 sensors on a typical offshore platform, only around 1% of the data generated is analysed. The Internet of Things: Mapping the value beyond the hype, McKinsey Global Institute report, June 2015
[3]     Case studies cited by A new natural resource: Your cognitive future in the oil and gas industry, IBM Institute for Business Value 2016