The world’s first unmanned production platforms are expected to start producing oil from the North Sea by 2016.
The floating platforms will be developed by engineering giant Amec, which yesterday signed a “memorandum of understanding” with Unmanned Production Buoy (UPB) to develop three platforms.
They will be similar to the “nodding donkey” automated rigs seen in North America.
The concept is the brainchild of UPB’s founder and chairman, Richard Selwa. For the past seven years, he has been devising a method to exploit small offshore oil finds – either “tail-end resources” or fields that have been uneconomic to develop with fully manned rigs.
UPB’s unmanned buoy is similar to the concept used to pump crude from land. The engineer came up with the idea after seeing donkey rigs pumping oil from the ground in the US state of Wyoming.
The impact for the North Sea could be vast. Mr Selwa estimates there are two billion barrels still to be produced in the UK as part of the offshore oil and gas fields his rigs could exploit.
The deal with Amec means the company can forge ahead with “project Hoy”, a £765 million plan to extract oil from the UK North Sea using the automated buoys.
UPB has also signed agreements with oil explorers in the Irish Sea and in Danish waters. In October, it was awarded licences to exploit a series of North Sea fields formerly operated by oil giant Hess. UPB expects to have its first unmanned platform in the Angus field in less than three years.
The unmanned buoys address the growing problem of discoveries that are too small to be economic or that have been depleted by the oil majors. Most of the North Sea’s main fields have already been discovered, which means only smaller or “stranded” fields tend to be left.
Mr Selwa claims unmanned buoys cost 60 per cent less than floating production rigs used in “marginal” fields. He also claims they have an “inherently low safety risk”.
Stranded fields that are not close enough to existing pipeline infrastructure can also benefit, as the unmanned rig is designed to connect to oil tankers.
Mr Selwa said: “Our UPB solution makes many late-life and marginal field offshore assets economically viable.
“The UPB concept provides an attractive solution when capital-intensive options such as Floating Production Storage and Offload (FPSO) vessels and manned installations are uneconomic.”
Alan Johnstone, of Amec, said: “This exciting concept will help push the boundaries of offshore oil and gas technology in the UK North Sea and beyond.”
Mr Selwa’s company started developing a small prototype of the buoy in 2010 with the Industry Technology Facilitator based at the Aberdeen Science & Energy Park. That same year, the firm received some £500,000 in funding from the Scottish Government through its Young Innovative Entrepreneur grant.
The firm eventually aims to build 100 or so systems for use in European waters and elsewhere.
UPB is seeking a “world first”, but it is in a race with two Aberdeen firms to bring unmanned oil platforms into use. Advanced Buoy Technology (ABT) has been developing an unmanned production buoy with engineering company Wood Group.
ABT has joined forces with explorer Enegi Oil to use the technology to develop currently unviable fields in the North Sea known as the Fyne prospect.