Until recently, oil and gas kept robots moving in more ways than one. Fossil fuel companies looking to speed up exploration, drilling, construction, and maintenance work turned to heavy-duty underwater drones known as remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, to keep their wells afloat. By last year the global market for ROV operations—mostly contract work done by companies such as Oceaneering International, Subsea 7, and Fugro—topped $3 billion, according to energy researcher InField Systems.
But with oil prices having their worst slump in decades, investments in many offshore projects have been postponed or canceled, and the ROV business is likewise cutting back. Together, the Big Three drone operators are laying off thousands of workers and leaving hundreds of their seafaring robots “sitting on the beach,” says InField analyst Kieran O’Brien, who estimates that one-quarter to one-third of the 1,200-plus vehicles in service around the world are idle. “The largest driver for ROVs has always been the offshore-rig markets,” O’Brien says. “Everyone is just trying to stay alive at the moment.”