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Robots: The Future of the Oil Industry

Companies are investing in unmanned, robotic drilling rigs
Robots: The Future of the Oil Industry
Illustration by Ted McGrath

NASA’s Mars rover may have something to teach the oil industry. Safely traversing the Red Planet while beaming data through space turns out to have a lot in common with exploring the deepest recesses of earth in search of crude oil and natural gas. Robotic Drilling Systems, a small Norwegian company that’s bent on developing a drilling rig that can think for itself, has signed an information-sharing agreement with NASA to discover what it might learn from Curiosity.

The company’s work is part of a larger futuristic vision for the energy industry. Engineers foresee a day when fully automated rigs roll onto a job site using satellite coordinates, erect 14-story-tall steel reinforcements on their own, drill a well, then pack up and move to the next site. “You’re seeing a new track in the industry emerging,” says Eric van Oort, a former Royal Dutch Shell executive who’s leading a new graduate-level engineering program focused on automated drilling at the University of Texas at Austin. “This is going to blossom.”