Remote Sites Push
Unmanned LNG Vessels


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Artist’s rendering of the Shell Prelude FLNG project. Image: Shell

For the natural gas industry, the future may be closer than expected. In an effort to push more efficient and economic development of remote offshore gas fields, one industry firm has released a concept for an unmanned floating liquid natural gas unit that builds on currently available technology. The intent was to foster thought and collaboration among developers, marine architects and engineers and other stakeholders looking out about 20 years. But realization of an unmanned FLNG unit could happen sooner.

“We are looking ahead to 2030,” says Richard Palmer, DNL GV’s oil and gas regional manager for Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. DNV GL is a Norway-based certification, verification and consulting firm with roots in classification of merchant ships. Those services have evolved, and now include a breadth of industries including offshore oil and gas and wind energy. “But we’ve spoken to some oil companies and found they are thinking along these same lines. The general consensus is 2030 may be too long of a timeframe.”

What the firm has submitted for brainstorming would result in a smaller, reliable floating production and storage platform operating remotely without a standard complement of 150-200 workers. DNV GL believes operating costs would be reduced about 20 percent with only a few percent increase in capital costs.

Solitude FLNG, an unmanned autonomous unit monitored and controlled from shore. Image: DNV GL

The concept is called Solitude and “was developed with maintainability foremost in mind,” said Elisabeth Tørstad, CEO of DNV GL’s oil and gas division, in announcing the concept.  “By changing the focus from maximum efficiency to maximum reliability, and selecting robust processing options with built-in redundancy, we were able to develop a solution that ensures production levels and boosts the economic viability of FLNG projects. Given the ongoing advances in autonomous systems and remote operations, unmanned offshore installations are a natural development over the next few decades.”

The concept calls for “advanced but mainly available technology” to provide power, replacing high-maintenance gas turbines with fuel cells, improving reliability while reducing the environmental footprint. Equipment throughout the vessel would be modularized and monitored from shore. Routine maintenance and other simple tasks would be done using robots, some moving along rails placed topside along process trains. A wide array of wireless sensors would gather and feed information to a shipwide monitoring system.

Further, safety risks would be eliminated without workers on board. The topsides of the vessel could be reconfigured for times when people are needed for large-scale maintenance, probably on a quarterly basis, according to DNV GL. The vessel would also be designed with a slip to safely dock maintenance vessels.

Solitude was conceived as part DNV GL’s Extraordinary Innovations Project, an ongoing effort within the firm to promote new, outside-the-box thinking. Palmer says the firm reinvests five percent of revenue for research and innovation, and typically produces four concepts per year within markets in which it participates.

“Innovation starts with understanding the current situation,” says Palmer. “So we started to look at subsea developments,” where operators now control subsea installations and simple fixed offshore installations from shore. Other elements envisioned in the concept have been successfully developed by the subsea industry: unmanned operations, modular design, and remotely operated vehicles for inspection and maintenance.

Among components needed to be developed to make the concept a reality are unmanned connections to hoses or pipes onboard, tandem offloading from an unmanned unit, autonomous units—robots—to perform daily maintenance and repair, high-capacity fuel cells that run on methane, and unmanned LNG operations that include refrigeration to transform and store the gas as liquid.

Among components already in the development pipeline are smart wireless nano/micro-sensor networks, dock-in solution for support vehicles, sophisticated autonomous inspection units, and standardization of components and interfaces.

DNV GL officials point out that the concept will never be realized without industry collaboration, and say that certain segments are already moving toward the goal. The industry’s first manned FLNG projects are now in development, aimed at extracting natural gas from very remote sites that preclude shore-to-land pipelines. Shell’s Prelude project is scheduled for operation offshore Australia in 2017, followed by Petronas’ PFLNG project off of Malaysia.

The concept of unmanned fully automated ships also is making progress. The European Commission is funding a multibillion-euro project called MUNIN—Maritime Unmanned Navigation Through Intelligence in Networks, to develop and verify a concept for an autonomous ship. It defines autonomous as a vessel primarily guided by automated on-board decision systems but controlled by a shoreside remote operator.

Rolls Royce Holdings also is stepping into the game, announcing last year it wants to design unmanned cargo ships. Its Blue Ocean development team has set up a virtual-reality prototype at offices in Norway.

“This is our way of thinking out loud,” says Palmer. “Our mission is to safeguard life, property, and the environment. The real aim is to inspire stakeholders.”

Learn more about energy solutions at ASME Power & Energy 2015

This is our way of thinking out loud. Our mission is to safeguard life, property, and the environment. The real aim is to inspire stakeholders.

Richard Palmer, DNL GV

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June 2015

by John Kosowatz, Senior Editor, ASME.org