December 2021, Vol. 248, No. 12


Assistive Technologies Set to Transform Pipeline Projects

By Matthew Tremblay, Vice President, Global Offshore, ABS  

Increased attention is being focused on minimizing or removing human presence in extreme environments by using remote operations and assistive technologies for monitoring and decision support.   

These new technologies are transforming how personnel work and how their exposure to potentially hazardous work environments can be minimized. Reducing the overall capital and operating costs of a typical pipeline project is also changing. Since a reduction in manpower (manning) is a fundamental shift for the industry, it needs to be considered carefully so that safety is not compromised.   

Floating facilities that support pipeline projects with reduced or no personnel on board can be remotely operated from a nearby asset or a control center located onshore. Such changes will require real-time monitoring, control automation and maintenance procedures incorporating remote diagnostics and simulations with minimal human intervention.   

This concept involves detailed consideration of the remote-control center, the communication infrastructure, smart functionalities and digital twin and simulation technologies.  

‘Zero Manning’  

Compared to a conventional facility, those with reduced or no personnel will have roles transferred from a pipeline and project team to a remote-control center. The ability to perform operations remotely relies on the design features, technologies, sensors, data flow and the software collecting and analyzing the data. The design effort must address new risks that may arise from the reduction or absence of a pipeline team that previously could have been located offshore or on land.  

Factors to be considered when reducing the number of personnel include:  

  1. Function: Functional requirements should be considered the primary driver. Key functions should be identified based on the type of facility, level of automation and autonomy and the facility’s main function. They may include remote control and monitoring, accessibility and maintenance, remote testing, fire safety/fire detection and firefighting, main and emergency power supply and import/export systems.   
  2. Operation: Remote control systems and technology should be analyzed in detail to identify all relevant potential hazards and their impact.   
  3. Structures and systems: While most design principles, such as structural integrity, will be the same as for a fully manned facility, consideration should be given to any unique elements introduced by the reduction in manpower.   
  4. Software quality and engineering-in security: Given that software will become even more integral to the operation of a pipeline facility with reduced manning, rigorous software engineering practices should be followed. This includes detailed testing of functional and extra functional requirements and using highly developed software failure modes effects and criticality analysis (FMECA) techniques to identify and control potential risks to asset safety and how projects are completed.   
  5. System engineering and integration: Close attention should be paid to the level of system engineering and integration. Verification and validation of an integrated system will require focus on functionality, operability and safety.   
  6. Automation and human involvement: The desired degree of autonomy and level of control need to be decided and documented.   
  7. Human factor engineering: Human-in-the-loop (HITL) analysis for the remote control room and facility are needed, which addresses the implementation of the basic principles of human factors engineering (HFE) and ergonomics.  

The overall objective of the design of unmanned pipeline facilities is typically to provide an equivalent level of safety to traditionally manned facilities. This challenge is usually addressed through a risk-based approach, which can include identifying and managing the risk of novel features to an acceptable level using as low as reasonably practical (ALARP) principles or criteria.  

Regulatory Framework  

For marine applications, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has defined several levels of autonomy. Varying levels of controls representing human and machine involvement drive these levels, with monitoring, analysis, decision-making and action. Here is an example of autonomy levels and control methods applicable to offshore installations – a framework that has crossover with other activity.  

For offshore applications, which are often not subject to the full IMO framework, the proposed arrangements and operations will need to comply with the local requirements and location of where the facility or project will be installed. In many cases, requirements have been developed based on traditional manpower requirements and require careful consideration with regulatory authorities to achieve the necessary compliance.  

Considerable work has already been developed to understand the existing regulations and standards, and their inherent barriers to deploying and operating facilities and pipelines with minimal or no personnel. The barriers can be ranked by risk (critical, high, medium, low and negligible) and reevaluated with potential technology credit, whereby the risk ranking is changed due to new technologies that can be introduced to remove or minimize human presence and involvement.   

Mitigating barriers will usually require a structural and organizational change with the widely recognized model focusing on three areas – People, Process and Technology. Barriers and their mitigation will need to be discussed clearly for stakeholders, including regulatory bodies.  

Focus on People  

Regarding people, HITL and the implementation of basic principles of HFE and ergonomics, critical for health and safety practices whether offshore or onshore and at the remote-control station, will need to be discussed. This will include considerations such as crew habitability and the integration of HFE and ergonomics, so that the facility is designed and arranged to support consistent task performance in both normal operations and crisis management.  

Shifting of processes to adopt more automation with minimal or no human involvement will require adopting new technologies and rethinking the life-cycle strategy, reliability strategy and maintenance management. If human involvement is required, then the process should be capable of being run from a remote location. Process improvement must be carried out in a structured manner starting with an Enterprise Asset Management assessment to evaluate the life-cycle strategy, reliability strategy, smart functionality and organization readiness.  

Adopting new technology and replacing action by humans will need to show that risk has been reduced to ALARP level. For consideration, new technologies must have a reasonable technology readiness level (TRL) and be qualified. Such technologies for a facility may include connectivity, data collection and storage, management and analytics of sensor information, condition-based and predictive maintenance information, digital twins, and so on.   

Since pipeline projects can incorporate autonomous functions, for example on a vessel or in a facility, it is often an incremental process. To help support this process, ABS has introduced a smart to autonomous framework, which works toward the goals of the facility using established rules and guides in the Smart, CyberSafety and Software Series.   

These are applied so that the technical requirements for software, cyber security and data are successfully achieved throughout – from manned to reduced manning, and to unmanned facilities, in a systematic and planned way.  

While the journey to “zero manning” may seem a challenge, expert help is available to assist offshore and onshore pipeline operators that keep projects running safely and efficiently. The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) recently launched its white paper on reduced manning, which is the result of the organization’s activities in projects and various working groups across Europe, the Americas and Asia.   

ABS also developed classification requirements for equipment reliability, smart functionality, autonomous and remote control operations.    

Author: Matthew Tremblay serves as ABS vice president of Global Offshore Markets, based at ABS Corporate Headquarters in Houston. In his current role, he holds the global responsibility for strategic planning and client development within the offshore market sector. Tremblay graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy with a bachelor’s degree in marine engineering. He is also a member of the American Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME). 

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