Made in Colombia: Ecopetrol's R&D push

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Colombia has set its sights on tapping offshore oil and gas resources as part of efforts to diversify the country's upstream geographical footprint and widen the hydrocarbon production window.

To support this push, state oil company Ecopetrol, science and technology development agency Colciencias, Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana and Universidad Nacional are working on a project to develop robot technology for offshore operations.

BNamericas spoke to Julio Correa, project leader and research professor at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, to learn more about the initiative.

BNamericas: How did this initiative come about?

Correa: Very broadly, for Ecopetrol it was very important to begin to gain capabilities in everything that has to do with offshore exploration.

Traditionally exploration has been onshore, but it is migrating and, at least in Colombia, there are interesting perspectives offshore.

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In 2011 there was a very broad call led by Ecopetrol and Colciencias, in that one of the themes had to do with exploration.

From the start there were two objectives. One technical, which had to do with construction of an unmanned vehicle capable of descending to a depth of 500m to support exploration activities, but another, equally important, was capacity building in the country so that in the future there could be a team of people well trained in the area of marine robotics, able to support future work.

With a vehicle from a previous project we've had the opportunity to go to dams and navigate in turbid environments, as well as work with the navy at sea.

BNamericas: What was the project's latest milestone?

Correa: In August, we participated in an expedition to the Sea Flower biosphere reserve in Colombia's Caribbean area, supporting biological research and in turn help to further develop and test the vehicle.

BNamericas: How does the vehicle compare with that offered by commercial service providers?

Correa: Going forward, we don't see it simply as a vehicle that could compete with that of another company.

That perhaps is not the relevant point, but rather that the country has a group of people who have the knowledge to talk with other operators and transfer information to them.

Those capacities are what really make the difference, not so much because as a university we're determined to offer a more commercially competitive vehicle. If that happens, it would be fabulous.

What is most important to us would be to have the capacity to support decisions that Ecopetrol takes tomorrow.

What may be possible, and we are working on this, is that through our own developments we come across components that by themselves could be interesting to give them that [commercialization] look going forward.

BNamericas: What about applying the project to other areas along the hydrocarbon chain?

Correa: What we have detected is that this knowledge can be transferred to other fields, be it within the same oil industry or in others not necessarily related.

Those are discussions we have begun to have lately, because obviously for Ecopetrol it is very valuable to see if the things we are doing can serve other areas.

For example, everything that has to do with the management of information and data analysis; areas like image recognition, an area not exclusively linked to subsea vehicles. We've even talked about how interesting it would be to conduct tests with aerial vehicles.

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BNamericas: How would you catalog Colombia's efforts on the technology front? Is it gaining momentum?

Correa: Definitively yes. I would highlight two aspects. As people or companies become conscious that certain problems can be resolved with resources available in the country and with high end technology, doubts and fears begin to disappear and there is a more open environment to advance in this area. That is the first point.

The second, it is work that corresponds to all, to push for collaboration among the company, the university and the state to support research work which in the end benefits companies and the development of higher education.