Fully automated drilling operations, autonomous pipeline inspections and the expanded use of natural gas to fuel trucks and railways are likely to be at the forefront by 2025 as technology makes gains in the upstream industry, industry consultant DNV GL said.

By 2025, the energy industry will become increasingly “automated, digital and smarter,” according to DNV’s Technology Outlook 2025 published on Tuesday. Several technologies will be making a difference in the world, said researchers, as strong growth in natural gas production continues, while cost efficiencies are highlighted and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions expands.

“While the industry is understandably preoccupied with generating shorter-term value, we must also keep an eye on where longer-term value and permanent efficiency gains can be achieved,” DNV Oil & Gas CEO Elisabeth Torstad said. “Innovation is not just about finding the breakthrough technologies, although that is important too; it is also about making things simpler and more efficient and ultimately helping the industry to safely cut costs.”

Over the coming decade, DNV is forecasting:

One of the most anticipated technologies, automated drilling in the offshore and onshore, could reduce drilling times and costs by 30-35% versus conventional drilling rigs, ensuring more wells are economically feasible, able to hit smaller targets and generating more infill production, said researchers.

“The implications of automation will be felt throughout the performance of drilling operations, as automated rigs will change the roles of the different parties involved: rig owner, service companies and the operator.”

By 2025, pipeline inspections in the offshore should be routinely performed using autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) equipped with sonars, cameras and sensors. AUV inspections now are being used, limited only by their endurance. On land, onshore manned aerial vehicles — i.e. drones — would become de rigueur for regular inspections. Aerial drones are gaining more acceptance today, and solar-powered drones now are being developed for both military and commercial use.

A big push also is expected by 2025 toward expanding the use of LNG as a fuel for trucks and trains in the United States because of low gas prices. Many industry advocates have pushed to use more natural gas for transportation, which to date mostly has been a niche industry, used in urban transport by buses and trucking firms (see Daily GPI, March 22). Some railroads also are experimenting with using natural gas as a fuel, as are marine transporters (see Daily GPI, April 1; June 6, 2013).

Some of the biggest cost savings are seen in rig-less plugging/abandonment technologies. Before they gain widespread acceptance, however, more risk-based approaches are needed, and regulations would need to be refined to define what is sufficient for long-term integrity, researchers said.

The subsea industry is another area with “great potential” for new technologies, said DNV’s Bjorn Sogard, segment director for subsea and floaters.

“The cost crisis in the oil and gas industry has gone through two stages; first, looking into obvious cost cuts through contract negotiations and headcounts, then secondly seeking collaborations to share the load on industry issues and drive standardization,” he said. “We are now about to enter a third stage, characterized by a willingness to open up for radical new ideas that can reshape industry processes. We believe that in the longer horizon offshore production and processing systems are going down to the seabed as a cost effective and safe alternative for platforms and floaters.”

Subsea systems, he said, traditionally have been simple from a control and monitoring perspective.

“This simplicity has enabled subsea systems to deliver reliable production from 5,000 wells around the globe. Currently, subsea system integrity and main flow parameters are monitored from remote control rooms 24/7 but according to the DNV GL report, by 2025 subsea solutions are expected to rely actively on monitoring and data analytics.”

Another gamechanger will be digitization for the subsea to help achieve optimum flow conditions for stable production, he added.