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Something to prove

Robots have become a force in infrastructure inspection.

This is especially true in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, which are not obvious test platforms for new technologies. Because their assets reach billions of dollars, their managers are very cautious about entrusting their facilities to any new technology. However, even simple things like checking the corrosion and leakage of tanks explain why robots are becoming more popular.

The tank is exposed to the weather outside and the erosive chemicals inside. Users must periodically check for damage to their walls, roofs, and especially the floor, as water under the tank can cause invisible corrosion.

In order to inspect the fuel tank, the operator must empty it, discharge any toxic gases, and erect scaffolding to reach the high-rise structure. Depending on the strength of the inspection, this can take weeks or even months. It also exposes workers to high and narrow spaces, one of the most common causes of accidents and deaths in the industry.

Enter the robot. Magnetic robots climb the wall, traverse the roof, and search for defects in the floor. The Quadcopters are visually inspected inside. They may be faster and cheaper than humans because they eliminate the need for scaffolding and narrow space work.
On offshore oil platforms, drones inspect equipment and remotely operate vehicles to search for problems in underwater pipelines. On land, they scan the gas burned from the high stack to prevent equipment leakage and overheating. Under the ground, their pan and tilt cameras illuminate the sides of the pipe, too small to enter the body.

At the 100-year-old oilfield services company Waukesha-Pearce Industries, Terry Nelson uses the track to inspect the fire tube, a 20-foot-tall chimney used to regenerate desiccants used to remove water and contaminants from natural gas.

Nielsen, the company’s production equipment service manager, said: “We used to close the well, cool the pipe, then pull it out and set it aside with a large crane.” “Now we leave it in place until it is at 200 °F. The following is cooled and sent to the robot to draw erosion, corrosion, dents and cracks. This takes six to eight hours.”

Brad Tomer, vice president of operations at Avitas Systems, said the robot couldn’t do all the work. The company applied big data technology and robots to Waukesha-Pearce. However, they did a good job.

“In a particular factory, they may do 40% of the work done manually before,” he said.

And robot inspectors are getting smarter and faster. Through the use of advanced analysis and machine learning, Tomer will significantly reduce the time from 20 different wells in 20 wells to 7 days.

The industry likes these numbers. It likes to improve safety and reduce the cost of compensation for workers. The efficiency of the robot reduces the need for people and prefers to reduce labor.

However, the industry remains cautious given the size, cost and complexity of its facilities. So why do refineries allow robots to enter? How did they learn to believe that they were tested and human? The answer is complex, and it shows how the next wave of robots might penetrate other industries.
Twain Pigott, Dow’s chief robotic architecture expert, said safety played an important role in bringing robots to Dow Chemical. His team wanted to use technology to reduce confined spaces and reduce falls and equipment cleaning incidents.
These three people have the highest number of casualties in our industry,” he explained.

Economics is also very powerful. According to Fred Stow, director of drilling and production services at Waukesha-Pearce, because robots don’t require scaffolding or ropes, they are faster to deploy and can reduce inspection costs by two-thirds.

“In the past, you drove halfway through the road and spent 100 full-day diagnostic tests,” he said. “Now, I can fly there, map assets, and get visual and infrared readings on the website. If we measure assets more than once, we can see how they change and predictive maintenance and root cause analysis of the problem. ”

Oil and gas are ready to deal with these controversies. Since the 1980s, many people have used remotely operated vehicles – tethered underwater robots – to inspect deep sea pipelines that humans cannot safely dive.

They also converted cylindrical “pigs” used to clean oil, gas and chemical pipes into “smart” pigs equipped with sensors to measure leaks and pipe integrity.

However, the industry “does not take robots seriously until the end of 2010,” said Adam Selbrowski, head of Shell Robotics. “That was when drones opened people’s eyes. They were completely commercial, and we didn’t make sure the platform was effective in time.”

Serblowski first used drones to inspect the towers, which burned excess natural gas. Drones equipped with infrared cameras can inspect the torch and identify hot spots and uneven heating during driving. These hot spots can only be seen by workers installed on the tower after cooling.

Today, Serblowski describes his use of drones as a “one-mile long list.” For example, he now uses an Elios quadcopter wrapped in a flexible cage to inspect the inner tank wall and roof. If it hits a prominent pipe or support, the cage absorbs the impact and the drone continues to fly instead of hitting the ground.

“We still have to empty and drain the tank to make sure there is no explosive atmosphere,” Serblowski said. “However, this is a harvest because we don’t need to put people in, we can check the roof without any scaffolding.

“The downside is that the battery life is not long, because the drone must bear the extra weight of the cage and the sensor,” he said.

Therefore, a full inspection takes two days. Still, this is much faster than the time required to build and remove the internal scaffolding.

The drone wakes up a new interest in the crawler. Dow uses a miniature robot equipped with a pan-tilt-zoom HD camera to climb small pipes between some chemical plants. Shell tested its tank floor using a track with an ultrasonic sensor.

As more and more industries invest in robots, more companies are introducing new and better systems.

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