Robotic Inspection: An overview of their use in supporting safer & more productive Oil & Gas assets.
Author: Stuart Lawson
The future of the oil and gas industry is difficult to predict with certainty, but it is likely that the industry will continue to play a significant role in the global energy mix for the foreseeable future. While there is increasing focus on the development and deployment of renewable energy sources, fossil fuels such as oil and gas are still expected to account for a significant portion of the world's energy needs.
The Committee on Climate Change forecasts that demand for oil and gas in the UK in 2050 will still be around 400 million barrels of oil equivalent (boe) per annum. For this reason, Oil & Gas operators are working to increase the uptime and productivity of their assets while also mitigating or eliminating safety risks and addressing the challenges of maintenance and repair costs.
Picture: Flare Inspection completed by drone
In general, it is expected that Oil and Gas assets will continue to be used for an extended period of time. There are increasing challenges involved in ensuring the ageing infrastructure is properly maintained and can continue to be operated, it is not surprising then that the industry is seeking the adoption and collaboration with (RAS) robotic and autonomous technologies.
How are robotics being used?
In general, it is expected that Oil and Gas assets will continue to be used for an extended period of time, as long as they are properly maintained and operated. To overcome these challenges, it's not surprising that the industry is seeking the adoption and collaboration with (RAS) robotic and autonomous technologies to mitigate some of these impacts.
Existing solutions are already providing significant economic benefits to the Oil and Gas industry by improving efficiency in routine and non-routine inspections. Robots such as Drones or ROV’s, can be used to perform inspections and maintenance tasks on assets, reducing the need for human workers to perform these tasks in potentially hazardous environments. This can improve the safety of workers and reduce the risk of accidents or injuries.
Demand for oil and gas in the UK will still be around 400 million barrels of oil equivalent (boe) per annum in 2050
Existing solutions are already providing significant economic benefits to the Oil and Gas industry by improving efficiency in routine and non-routine inspections. Robots such as Drones or ROV’s, can be used to perform inspections and maintenance on assets, reducing the need for human workers to perform these tasks in potentially hazardous environments. This is improving the safety of workers and reducing the risk of accidents or injuries.
By equipping these robots with specialist sensors and other tools data can be collected on the performance and condition of oil and gas assets. This data can then be analysed to identify trends and improve the efficiency of operations. Asset operators can then assess the current state and operational performance of an asset, as well as providing information for maintenance decisions, while reducing downtime and costs.
The implementation of RAS technology and processes is significantly reducing the number of required mobilisations for inspection campaigns delivering the additional benefit of reducing the carbon footprint of operations, as fewer vessels or helicopters are necessary.
This technology is becoming an essential part of operations and maintenance processes for understanding the condition of oil platforms and associated structures throughout their entire lifecycle.
Drones are being used to inspect and maintain oil and gas assets, with proven success in areas such as flares, tanks, and underdeck of offshore platforms. By capturing high-resolution images and video of the assets it is enabling operators to identify potential issues and prioritise maintenance and repairs.
The use of drones for inspections adds significant value by decreasing risks and costs, particularly when working at heights. Drones can be deployed quickly, cover a large area in a shorter period of time and access areas that may be challenging or impossible for technicians to reach using methods such as Rope Access.
As the technology continues to develop flight time & payload capacity is increasing and, with this, so is their ability to collect specialist or hard-to-access data, such as temperature, material thickness or optical gas measurements.
Picture: Innovair Inspection Drone pictured on asset ready for flight mission
Tanks and vessels are just some of the assets that can be inspected using a confined space drone. By conducting a tank inspection using a drone, asset teams can closely examine all surfaces within a tank without having to physically enter the space. While human entry may still be necessary at some point, for repairs or advanced non-destructive testing, the drone can initially screen a potentially hazardous asset to ensure it is safe to enter. Traditional tank inspections can take days to plan and implement, while inspections carried out by drones can take as little as a few hours, depending on the asset.
Overall, drones have the potential to enhance safety, efficiency, and productivity in the oil and gas industry by reducing the need for human workers to perform tasks in potentially hazardous environments, and by providing real-time data and analysis to support decision making.
Picture: Elios2 Drone inspecting a condensate tank on Innovair Project
Topside & Ground Based
Spot, a four-legged robot developed by Boston Dynamics, has been used in a variety of industries, including construction, mining, and oil and gas. It has the capability to navigate industrial environments and perform tasks such as inspections and data collection. Among its various industry demonstration projects, it was deployed on an Aker BP FPSO in the Norwegian sector where it was used to read gauges, inspect for corrosion, map the facility, and detect methane. Another robot called Taurob, has been used by operator TOTAL on their sites, acknowledging the many benefits autonomous surface robots provide to reduce the exposure to human operators during critical operations.
There is little doubt that robots like Spot and Taurob can enhance the safety of industrial assets and, while this type of "droid" technology may have seemed like something out of a sci-fi movie only a few years ago, it is developing at pace and is a significant step towards what can be realised in the future.
Picture: Boston Dynamics SPOT completing a walkaround on BP asset
Inspection of offshore oil and gas platforms is challenging due to the harsh environments they operate in, and this is particularly true of the splash zone area of these structures. Methods such as rope access and diving have inherent dangers, they are time-consuming, can be limited due to access in these environments, as well as being expensive. Robotics are automating the method for accessing target components in the splash zone. They are able to deliver more cost-effective visual and non-destructive testing (NDT) campaigns for operators, who must inspect a range of inspections on items including caissons, risers, conductors, guides and jacket structures.
Innovations such as magnetic crawlers, advanced NDT scanners or climbing robots can be deployed in both dry and subsea environments and help support faster, more efficient and safer operations. These systems generally require minimal resources and space on vessels or platforms and can be remotely controlled, allowing personnel to work safely from accessible areas.
In addition to visual and NDT inspections, these robots can also perform other tasks such as marine growth cleaning and advanced NDT for tasks like weld inspections. These robotic technologies provide more efficiency, flexibility and safety by reducing human intervention, increasing the accuracy and quality of inspections and even avoiding more costly intervention.
Picture: Magni Omni Directional Robot inspecting a oil platform leg
The next generation of subsea Hybrid Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (HUAVs) are already making a splash in the energy sector. HUAVs are underwater robots that are capable of operating both autonomously and under the control of a human operator. Equipped with sensors and other data-gathering tools, they can be used for a variety of purposes, including seabed surveys, data collection, and inspections of subsea structures.
HUAVs are often designed to be more flexible and adaptable than other types of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), as they can switch between autonomous and remotely controlled modes depending on the needs of the mission. This allows them to operate in a wider range of environments and perform a greater variety of tasks.
Designed with "subsea residency" in mind, these smart vehicles operate from docking stations and perform various routine and non-routine tasks underwater. This concept of "residency," where the vehicle remains docked or connected to a subsea docking station for charging and data transfer, will provide carbon-zero survey and inspection, maintenance, and repair solutions that will improve sustainability, efficiency, safety, and decision-making for subsea operations.
Adopting this technology and promoting a robust marine autonomy solution will also reduce the costs and environmental footprint associated with topside vessels, resulting in significant cost savings for the industry. The HUAVs can improve the efficiency and safety of the operations while increasing the data accuracy and quality of inspections, it will also have a positive impact on the environment by reducing emissions and other environmental impacts associated with traditional vessels.
Picture: ROV inspecting an offshore subsea structure
Summary - Robotics play a key role
The future of robotics in the oil and gas industry is likely to be characterised by continued development and adoption of advanced technologies and more sophisticated robots that can perform a wider range of tasks. Robots are expected to become more efficient and capable of performing tasks faster and more accurately than humans, leading to increased productivity in the industry. The use of robotic systems will be critical not only in replacing repetitive inspection tasks and reducing the cost of energy, but also in reducing health and safety risks for personnel who are currently completing hazardous tasks.
The oil and gas industry is a mature sector, however, it will continue to benefit from the adoption of robotic and autonomous systems (RAS) technology at every level. Advanced RAS technologies are expected to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of operations, significantly reducing costs, they will increase data accuracy, quantity, and quality, and also reduce the environmental impact of operations. Furthermore, with the advancements in AI and machine learning, robots will be able to operate more independently and adapt to different environments and rely less on humans for operation, enabling them to perform more complex and specialised tasks with increased autonomy.
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Stuart Lawson BSc, MInstNDT LEP