Automatic for the People

Article by Sean Loughney

Sean Loughney asks how safety in the offshore industry might be improved via automation

OFFSHORE installations can be particularly hazardous – and in some cases, dangerous – places to work. Over the past 30–40 years there have been a number of offshore incidents that have led to fatalities, environmental damage and property damage or loss. One such incident is the Piper Alpha disaster, in 1988, where 167 crew lost their lives, along with the platform itself. While these incidents, accidents and events are deeply regrettable, they have served to improve and expand offshore safety regulations. Thus, it is fair to say that the offshore industry appears to have been somewhat reactive in its approach to safety. That said, it is not possible to predict or plan for every possible scenario that may injure crew or damage the environment – let alone mitigate against them all.

Piper Alpha, for example, was the beginning of the development of the offshore safety case. Since its implementation, in 1992, and the continued implementation and enforcement of other regulations throughout the 90s and 2000s, the number and severity of offshore incidents has reduced. As an example, Figure 1 shows the trend in incident frequency of vessel-to-platform collisions on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf (UKCS). Since the beginning of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the frequency of incidents has steadily decreased from 1980 to present day. Clearly this is evidence of improved offshore safety over the course of nearly 50 years of improvements and changes to regulations and best practice.

But we can, and should, do more. Can offshore safety be improved through automation? What are the automation methods that can be applied?

Figure 1: Trend of ship to platform collision incidents frequencies on the UKCS – based upon research conducted by Liverpool John Moores University and HSE

The requirement to collect measurements relating to temperature, flow, pressure and vibration, in often remote and unsafe locations is common, and vital in the offshore oil and gas industry. The offshore industry is continually expanding and progressing, particularly technological advances. This growth in industry and technology is also driving the need to measure, record and transmit data in real time. The emphasis here is on remote and unsafe locations. The idea behind this technology is the removal of humans from these situations and areas. This is to improve on the number of potential incidents that may cause injury or fatality to humans.

Offshore platforms house an abundance of remote and unsafe locations associated with a variety of systems. In many situations now where it is impossible or ridiculously difficult for humans to reach, wired sensors and similar equipment are used. These systems require power, cables and conduits to reach devices in remote locations. This is costly, inconvenient, time consuming and, in some cases, impossible.

Article by Sean Loughney

Lecturer, Maritime Management at the Faculty of Engineering and Technology, Liverpool John Moores University

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