Stefan Messerklinger ABB, Mobile Automation Eggelsberg, Austria, Stefan.firstname.lastname@example.org
Penetrating the darkness, four plate-footed legs extend in preparation for landing the ten-ton apparatus securely below. Once established on the targeted unexplored landscape, the integrated robotic drill begins probing the terrain .
What could be a rendition of a mission to Mars, is actually a description of a deep sea drilling research mission in which a drill rig was once lowered through the ocean to rest on the sea floor 2,500 below, where a remote-controlled robotic drill rig samples the seafloor 200 m below. This amazing feat is possible in part thanks to the automation, control and communication technology supplied by B&R Industrial Automation (a company acquired by ABB in 2017 that now acts as ABB’s division for machine automation) at the request of Bauer Maschinen GmbH.
A challenging setting
The ultra-deep sea is largely unobserved, unexplored, and unmapped, yet, holds one of the keys to understanding Earth’s climate; it is also a source of energy, sustenance and commerce. Understanding these phenomena requires drilling under difficult conditions in a physically challenging environment – as challenging as exploring space.
Here, enabling technology depends on water depth, sediment type, potential foundation depth and soil properties . For instance, at water depths of 4,000 m, temperatures are below 4 °C and the ambient pressure is 40.0 MPa. Typically, soft fine-grained clays are encountered with undrained shear strengths of 5 – 30 kPa at 45 m depth . Taking measurements and obtaining undisturbed samples under such conditions is problematic yet essential, requiring resilient technology.
A collaborative solution
This is where business and academics join forces to develop robust technologies to operate reliably under such adverse conditions. The newest generation of the seabed drill rig, MeBo200, developed by the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences (MARUM) and Bauer in 2014, is just such technology →01. The drill rig can be deployed through 2,500 m of ocean to rest on the seabed where it can sample and probe the sea floor to depths of 200 m →01. Such a phenomenal achievement owes its success to another long-term collaboration between experts at Bauer and B&R. After many successful years of research-based drilling, Bauer asked B&R to supply the automation, control and communication technology needed for remote-controlled robotic drilling operations in extreme environmental conditions, in order to open up MeBo200 for commercial drilling use , eg, test drilling in subsoils ranging from loose sediment to hard stone, geotechnical exploration for offshore foundations; for mineral exploration; offshore gas or oil drilling exploration of underwater sulfide reserves and for exploration of marine gas hydrates.
Although specialized drillships are traditionally used to explore the sea floor, reduced availability and high costs, due to the impacts of wind, waves and current on the ship- and drill string motion and the properties of soft fine-grained sediments encountered, make this drilling process in ultra-deep waters logistically challenging . Robotic seabed drill rigs, however, reduce and even eliminate some of these difficulties: in situ coring diminishes sample disturbance, drilling quality remains intact as wind, waves and current are irrelevant for the drilling process, in situ coring mobilization costs are reduced as multi-purpose ships can deploy the rigs, drilling costs are lower because drill strings are not assembled from the ship to the seabed . For cost and time effective strategies, robotic seabed drill rigs are widely and successfully used for exploration today.
Reaching the Seabed
One such rig, MeBo200, is a second generation seabed drill rig built on the success of the first MeBo drill rig, operating since 2004 and capable of drilling down 70 m →01. MeBo200 extends drilling capability to 200 m. Successfully tested in the North Sea during 2014, not only can MeBo200 work at water depths of up to 2,500 m, it can drill into sediments, rock, and gas hydrates with generally less sample disturbance than drill rigs operated from drillships can achieve .
Modern automation technology
Despite the success of the first two MeBo generations to deliver valuable results to the research community, further improvements were necessary to enable widespread commercial use in accordance with DNV standards. Bauer, who developed the drilling technology, mechanics, hydraulics and launch and recovery system of the MeBo200, asked B&R to enhance the drill rig with the following elements to enable commercial applications:
• State-of-the-art control technology
• An extended communication network
• Interfaces for external automation components
• An updated diagnostics and maintenance system
B&R was an obvious partner for upgrading the automation architecture. “We’ve been working successfully with B&R for a very long time, and have been using their technology in our deep drilling rigs for decades,” according to Bauer’s Lothar Schirmel.
Performance under harsh conditions
MeBo200 is mounted in a frame and weighs 10 tons in air (eight tons in water). The entire MeBo has 20-foot container dimensions and is carried by an available research vessel to the location of interest →01. When it arrives, the exploratory drill rig is lowered to the seabed by 2,700 m of steel-armored umbilical cable →02. The cable is MeBo200’s lifeline to the ship, supplying it with both power and control commands. It is remotely steered shipboard.
In order to reliably collect data from the seabed and send it to the ship kilometers above, MeBo200 required extremely resilient technology →03. Schirmel notes, “At 2,500 m below sea level, conditions are extreme, so all the components used must be robust and reliable. That’s why we chose B&R’s X90 mobile control system, which easily withstands these extreme conditions.”
The X90 controllers are easy to adapt to different requirements using option modules due to their standardized components →04. The heart of the system is an ARM processer. For the MeBo200, these were configured as intelligent POWERLINK bus controllers with numerous integrated I/O connections. The POWERLINK protocol is transmitted on single-mode fiber cable via wave-division multiplexing media converters and converted back when it reaches the ship.
04 The X90 mobile controller system is resilient enough to withstand the extreme conditions at depth.
“Operating a reliably functioning real-time network under these extreme conditions is a major challenge – but together with B&R it was one we were able to solve. They provided expert guidance in the selection of converters, and they knew just how to tweak the network settings to get the initial communication interruptions under control. That’s exactly what you want from an automation partner,” affirms Schirmel.
Software updates on deck
The integrated Ethernet interfaces on the X90 controllers are accessible from the ship’s deck via fiber optics. “That’s important for us, because it allows us to update the software on the rig as needed without having to bring it up to the surface or open the pressure vessel to access the controllers,” Schirmel explains.
Electric signals into the pressure vessel are secured with special plug-in connectors able to easily withstand 40.0 MPa of pressure, conditions that are encountered at water depths of 4,000 m. In this way, nearly 100 proportional valves, absolute encoders, displacement sensors and more are connected to the I/Os on the X90 controller devices.
All-around control and views
The drilling unit is easily controlled remotely from a container on the deck of the research vessel. The completely revamped operator station features a seat with joystick controls mounted on the armrests, similar to what one would find in the cab of a crane →05. Additional controls are found on three 19-inch touchscreen monitors, which were selected from B&R’s Singletouch Automation Panel series, with three panels with analog resistant single touch screen (wide screen formats) available, this highly flexible system allows upgrades to be made while continuing to use the HMI application →05.
The three panels display all the critical information needed to control the MeBo200 drilling rig and all other auxiliary equipment. Above them, two more monitors display live video feed from the eight installed underwater cameras. The operators can monitor closely the largely manual drilling process.
The data coalesces in the B&R APROL process control system, which runs on two redundant Automation PC 910 units →06. Three more industrial PCs from the Automation PC 3100 series are used as remote Human Machine Interface (HMI) servers.
“We’ve been using APROL as a powerful HMI, data acquisition and data management solution in our oil and gas deep drilling rigs since 2005,” Schirmel explains →06, “A key element is the high-performance data storage and long-term archiving that APROL offers. That includes the Trend Viewer, which lets us visualize the recorded data and analyze error causes.”
MeBo200 control solution runs on a PLC from the B&R X20 system, a complete and detailed control solution with a sophisticated ergonomic design. The X20 system expands the possibilities of any standard control system, The seamless integrations with other B&R components, allows the implementation of applications with unimagined performance and flexibility.
Because the control and HMI can run separately, the operators are able to start up, test, or/and operate the drilling rig and auxiliary units progressively, even without an APROL server.
Furthermore, the B&R X20 system is used to integrate a variety of auxiliary units, including a hydraulic power unit, a radio remote control for deck-based operation of MeBo200 and the power center with transformers for the high-voltage supply of the drill rig.
Connecting third-party components
“Some of the auxiliary units are bought-in parts,” Schirmel says. “For those, we have no say in what fieldbus is used. That’s why we really appreciate that B&R offers interfaces and libraries for all common fieldbuses.” This setup has made it easy for Bauer’s Schirmel and his team to connect the remote control receiver, the joysticks and the associated control panel for the full benefits of this automation system.
A dependable partner
“The flexibility and consistency of everything in the B&R world allows us to seamlessly capture all necessary data and transfer it to the HMI and data management systems without having to define or implement all the different interfaces ourselves,” praises Schirmel. “Together with the openness and size of the product portfolio, those are the reasons we rely on B&R as an automation partner – especially for particularly large or unique automation projects like our new offshore applications.”
Expanding the future of drilling
Thanks to B&R, the newest automated MeBo200, benefits from the highest industrial quality, a powerful and open architecture, comprehensive connectivity, consistent data management and seamless data storage. Working through ideas to create products to achieve automation, control, connectivity and communication goals, B&R is helping to expand MeBo200’s application range so that Bauer can target commercial drilling communities who now have another way to drill in ultra-deep waters.
 Franz Rossmann “Good Automation Runs Deep”, in preparation, pp. 1 – 5.
 G. Spagnoli et al., “First Deployment of the Underwater Drill Rig MeBo200 in the North Sea and its Applications for the Geotechnical Exploration” Society of Petroleum Engineers Publication SPE-175456-MS 2015, pp. 1 – 14.
 W. McCarron, “Deepwater Foundations and Pipeline Geome-chanics”. Fort Lauderdal: J. Ross Publishing, 2011, pp. 1 – 304
 T. Freudenthal, T. and G. Wefer, “Drilling Cores on the Sea Floor with the Remote-Controlled Sea Floor Drilling Rig MeBo”, Geoscience Instrument Method Data System, Vol. 2, 2013, pp. 329 – 337.