In the 1960s, engineers predicted that manned outposts would be built on the bottom of the sea housing hundreds of workers to handle complex tasks like exploiting deep sea oil and natural gas fields. In the 21st century, those outposts are becoming a reality, but as unmanned robotic platforms that are rarely visited by humans. To show how these will be built and operated, GE has created a 3D virtual exhibit for its new research center in Rio de Janeiro.
Developed by GE and Oculus Rift, the tour uses the Oculus Rift headset to provide an immersive 3D trip to an oil factory on seabed one mile down off the coast of Brazil, as seen from the pilot's seat of the virtual Nautilus 1 submersible. As the tour proceeds, the visitor sees the layout of the factory, a robotic rover connecting to a deepwater "Christmas tree" gas and oil control valve assembly.
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What isn't there is people. There are no divers or habitats because everything is either robotic or remotely controlled from the surface. This installation is designed to operate and maintain itself without human intervention for years on end as it pumps oil and gas from deposits four miles beneath the ocean's surface in freezing, highly corrosive conditions and hundreds of atmosphere of pressure.
The purpose of such an installation is to overcome the problems associated with working oil fields in deeper and deeper waters. In the early days of offshore oil exploration and exploitation, working from a rig or drilling ship was relatively simple, but as exploration moved to deeper fields, working them from surface platforms became extremely difficult, expensive and even dangerous as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates.
GE's idea is to move the works from the surface platforms to the seabed using automated installations. This would include subsea separation, which is taking the crude petroleum coming out of the ground and dividing the oil, gas, and water. Once this was done, the installation would boost it up the collection pipes to awaiting tankers or shore stations. These installations are so far out that they need to use a DC power system rather than the conventional AC systems because of the large amount of power that needs to be transmitted over long distances.
"You could imagine doing all the operations you previously would have done topside on the seafloor," says Alisdair McDonald, business leader of subsea power and processing at GE Oil & Gas. "This would essentially do away with having a floating platform, the capital and operating costs of running it and the risks of having a manned platform out at sea."
Such installations have already been built in the North Sea, where GE developed components that can operate for decades on end while experiencing temperatures from freezing to 350º F (177º C), yet maintaining tolerances within two microns. For the new installations off the coast of Brazil, the technology must operate even deeper and with more autonomy to work the pre-salt layers on the ocean floor, which are sedimentary rocks that formed as South America and Africa split off from one another millions of years ago and have been found to hold major deposits of light oil.
"The Oculus Rift experience provided an opportunity for us to take viewers into otherworldly territory that we wouldn't normally be able to visit," says Katrina Craigwell, GE’s head of global digital programming. "Traveling a mile down to the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Brazil, the experience highlights the extreme environment that subsea technology must withstand, and a vision for how a subsea factory will work in the future."
The video below shows the virtual tour.