Automated planning software helps NASA track resources, safety constraints for high-risk activities

Posted on 06 March 2014

Arthur Molin of TRAClabs explained how an automated planning software takes into account safety restrictions and resources for NASA’s high-risk, extra-vehicular activities.

Arthur Molin of TRAClabs explained how an automated planning software takes into account safety restrictions and resources for NASA’s high-risk, extra-vehicular activities.

By Joanne Liou, associate editor

From the ground to the seabed – and even outer space – a common thread links the space and drilling industry: Our operations are challenging and hazardous. Effectively and safely managing those operations requires adequate planning and the ability to adjust plans for unforeseen events and changing conditions. In a presentation showcasing lessons learned from the aerospace industry that could be adopted to improve drilling, TRAClabsArthur Molin explained that NASA is automating its planning and scheduling processes, particularly for extra-vehicular activities (EVA) such as space walks. TRAClabs is a Texas-based company focused on research and development of robotics and automation.

“The most dangerous, most expensive and most resource-constrained activities are the extra-vehicular activities,” including walks outside the International Space Station (ISS), he said at the 2014 IADC/SPE Drilling Conference on 3 March in Fort Worth, Texas. “The time for a space walk is strictly limited both by resource limitations, like oxygen and power available in the suits, as well as simply the stamina of the astronauts.”

NASA does not have an overarching computer planning system or tool. Rather, there are niche tools that answer to different elements, such as oxygen consumption and power requirements. NASA also keeps databases for inventory, as well as photos of specific parts of the ISS. “These plans require coordination of a large number of different teams,” he continued. “Each team has a great deal of information about a narrow slice of the problem, particularly power and safety issues.”

To support and simplify the planning process, TRAClabs developed an automated planning software system for NASA. Automated planning is not meant to replace the human planning effort but to track resource use and safety constraints. “It allows a quick turnaround for our basic procedures, produces a plan very quickly, determines if this will meet the goals and what other effects it will have,” Mr Molin said. “The automated planner will go from a start state to a goal state using standard blocks and enforcing safety restraints.”

TRAClabs believes this automated planning system has the potential to be applied to wellsite operations to ensure that drilling plans comply with safety rules and ensure the equipment and resources are available at the right place and time.

To use the software, the user selects goals and start conditions. The system will then automatically sequence blocks to achieve those goals and insert immediate goals that are necessary to reach the final goals. The system runs in minutes, while a human team would require hours, and “the system could potentially be running in the middle of an EVA if conditions have changed,” Mr Molin explained.

Typical EVA procedures are prepared in Microsoft Word and are essentially delivered as a paper document. One of the benefits of producing a plan with the automated software is the flexibility and availability of the plan. “We developed an updated interface for the procedure. It shows the same information, but there are simple improvements, such as columns that can be scrolled independently and notes that can be added into the document,” he said.

The electronic document can also be shared online. “Anyone that is interested in the progress of the EVA and has permission to access the website can open the browser and see the progress,” he continued. When the automated system was first tested in July 2013, a large number of people in Mission Control in Houston, for the first time, had the ability to track the EVA progress.

The benefits of automated planning go beyond the given task, as it can also prove valuable during the debriefing phase. “Since the computers also track time stamps on every interaction, we can easily replay the procedure after the fact to work out if anything went wrong” and improve future activities.

For more information, see IADC/SPE 168036, “Automated Planning of Procedures for Risk Mitigation and Efficiency.”

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