Integrated Subsea Automation Solutions

Robert Ninker
Regional Director, Solutions Business, Rockwell Automation Asia Pacific
Safety control capability is a primary area where Rockwell Automation adds tremendous value and credibility to the industry. The company has distinguished itself from rest by having capabilities to meet all safety SIL levels of control for the industry. Around the world, the company is committed to putting their customers' needs first. Robert Ninker, Regional Director, Solutions Business , Rockwell Automation Asia Pacific, talks about all this, and more, in an exclusive interview with Sneha Sinha.

Please comment on the role of automation in subsea production ?
Automation has become the core and heart of process control. The right levels of control for system functionality, safety, availability and support are critical, or projects are doomed for challenges. Rockwell Automation has developed one of the broadest and most scalable architectures for topside Oil and Gas processes and safety system controls in the industry, and now we have significant capability for subsea level control.

Many companies talk about their architecture and technologies, but they really don't have the mix capabilities from the safety and supportability standpoint, or they don't have the capabilities from an application engineering solutions standpoint. Rockwell Automation is proud of the fact that we have developed a team of more than one thousand engineers with specific expertise and capability for custom applications in challenging Oil and Gas environments including subsea production.

What are the different subsea automation solutions offered by the company?
Rockwell Automation has developed our flexible Aadvance control system that can be applied to a variety of sub-sea applications including wellhead /manifold controls, pumping systems, Hydraulic Power Units, High Integrity Pressure Protection Systems (HIPPS), Blowout Preventer (BOP) systems, and all levels of SIL 1-SIL3 process safety control applications. We have applications around the world, including challenging applications from the North Sea down to Brazil.

What special considerations need to be made when applying these control systems on sub-sea depths of such great depths, and what are the challenges that can be addressed using subsea automation?
A production system operating remotely on the seabed creates a number of new and difficult challenges. At water depths of up to 3000 metre there are obvious physical challenges associated with pressure and temperature. Our systems had to be miniaturised into Eurocard form factors so they could be more easily applied into nitrogen pressurised Sub-sea Electronics Modules (SEMs) that can easily be accessed or replaced by Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) otherwise known as marine robots. Temperature variability is the other issue, since temperatures in such contained conditions can vary widely based upon the activity of the electronics; temperature can also change rapidly from sub-zero conditions to quite warm based simply on the movement of the tides.

Subsea Electronic Module (SEM) packaging is challenging - SEM packages can be smaller than a typical laptop computer case, so packaging control electronics together with temperature and nitrogen gas pressure systems is not a trivial design issue. Finally there is the issue of electronic connections - traditional connectors cannot be used due to seawater exposure when SEM modules are swapped under water by an ROV robot, therefore ,optically isolating circuitry is used vs. traditional connectors.

Why use subsea controls? Basically there are numerous applications that are faster and often safer is the control is done via sub-sea controls vs. traditional topside control systems. Due to the depths and extreme lengths of hardwired umbilical cabling there are inherent communication delays. Subsea control obviously minimises communication delays, and eliminates safety concerns for Emergency Shutdown (ESD) applications whenever topside communications lost. Many higher speed applications such as pressure, valve, Blow Out Preventer (BOP) control may therefore be better served via sub-sea CPU control vs. using topside control systems with potential communication challenges.

While sub-sea operations demand high levels of safety, maintaining maximum system availability or uptime is also critical. How do you balance these priorities from an automation supplier's perspective?
That's a difficult question because every customer's applications tend to be a bit different. Some customers prefer to handle overall safety control from the topside systems, whereas some believe that it's important to do it subsea. We believe a mix of topside and subsea ESD control is important, and should be customised for the particular application. The balance between safety and system availability is generally determined from a hazardous operations (Haz Ops) safety study performed at the beginning of the detailed design process.

There are detailed industry standards which outline a good process for accessing the consequences of failure vs. the likelihood of failure and determining the appropriate Safety Integrity Level (SIL level) for a given application. Once the customer determines SIL level and availability requirements via these studies the safety system architecture design becomes quite clear.

What are the basic differences in these safety levels for control ?
There are different classifications from International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). I am certainly not the expert on IEC standards but the IEC 61511 code provides a solid outline on Safety Integrity Level (SIL) concepts to define risk-reduction levels via detailed design requirements.

SIL requirements for hardware are based on an analysis of Probability of Failure on Demand (PFD). Stated more simply: Will the system operate correctly when required? SIL values range from 1 to 4, with SIL 1 being the lowest (PFD =10-2 to <10-1) and SIL4 being the most difficult to achieve (PFD =10-5 to <10-4). Customers are increasingly adopting these standards for most Oil and Gas applications. SIL 1 safety can generally be achieved using standard control hardware with basic diagnostics, but to reach higher SIL ratings the designs must use multiple processors and much higher levels of diagnostics for higher system availability.

Please put some light on the company's AADvance safety and critical control systems?
Advance is just one of the company's control solutions towards subsea application, but it is becoming a favorite architecture due to scalability for simplex, redundant, and Triple Modular Redundant (TMR) configurations. The system has won numerous industry awards based upon this unique scalability. Finally the system is easily integrated into other Rockwell Automation or even competitive architectures.

What is the Unique Sales Proposition (USP) of your solutions group over that of your closest competition?
Our Rockwell Automation motto is 'Listen, Think, Solve'- This subsea control challenge is a classic example of our value proposition since we worked with several global energy leaders to develop these specialised controls for subsea application before the concept was ever applied.

Our solutions team is also a Global leader on controls project management excellence - we have a team of over 600 project professionals focused on delivering integrated Information, Automation, Safety and Power systems for the Oil and Gas industry. Our ability to offer integrated solutions from the power control elements on up to the information is quite unique.

The company offers a wide variety of offerings that help enable Sustainable Operations. For example, our PlantPAx process control offering combines the best of automation and safety control. Yet another example is our emissions controls solutions, which monitor, track and reduce emissions.

We also offer a comprehensive set of Services and Asset Management solutions after the initial project sale in order to help to improve the reliability and availability of the project throughout the entire life cycle. There are very few automation suppliers in the world that have such breadth and capability specifically for the Oil and Gas industry.

There is a lot of human machine interaction in seabed drilling. In the future, do you perceive a day when the drilling could become completely automatic? If so, then by when? Please highlight the risks and challenges ?
Drilling and Drill ship control is already highly automated today, and I feel we will see continued migration toward more automated drilling control, yet I don't think the human element in the process will ever go away, especially since there are important visual elements to the process that will always be very hard to 'fully automate'.

For example, drilling requires real time analysis of drill output like sand vs. water mix, and making subtle adjustments during the process based upon visual clues. The fact is automation today is to the point we could automatically and remotely fly a passenger aircraft, but not many people will stand for a CPU being solely responsible for our personal safety.

I see this in much the same way for Automation – in the unlikely event of failures from unforeseen (non-automated) events, we will generally want to assure people are engaged for ultimate ‘master control’ and accountability