Crawler robots for inline inspection of oil & gas pipelines

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September 21, 2022


Oil & Gas / Robotics


Crawler robots for inline inspection of oil & gas pipelines

Robotics is now the fastest-growing engineering discipline, with significant applications in the industrial sector. With technological advancements being made every day and the pandemic serving as a catalyst, the world is rapidly progressing towards automation and reducing human participation in jobs. There has been a rising trend of robots being used for everything, from loading and unloading to inspection. Robots are increasingly being employed to investigate difficult work areas that are otherwise unreachable to people. Essentially, robots are meant to eliminate human interference from labor-intensive and hazardous work environments. Pipe inspection falls into the same category since they are used to transport dangerous chemicals and fluids and, in most cases, have small interior diameters or bends that are inaccessible to humans.

Crawler robots for inline inspection of oil & gas pipelines

The demand for robots in the oil and gas sector has skyrocketed as businesses attempt to capitalize on new technologies in the complex energy exploration and production sector. The automation in the oil and gas industry has been gradually expanding, motivated by the need to boost safety and improving efficiency to combat rising costs.

One of the most vital robotics applications in the oil and gas industry is pipeline inspection. In this sector, pipelines are designed to carry hazardous, explosive, and potentially deadly fluids. Therefore, regular checks are critical to ensure that machinery and infrastructure remain in excellent working order. This can be difficult to do by manual labor due to the dangers and risks involved in such situations and could potentially result in lost lives.

However, thanks to cutting-edge technologies, robots can be securely deployed and operated remotely or autonomously, especially in situations that are too dangerous for people. Some examples of robots being used in the oil and gas sector include crawler robots examining long distances within pipelines, drones doing overhead inspections at sea, and underwater robots sending data back from subsea pipelines.

Crawler robots are used for inline inspection of oil and gas pipelines, specifically areas inaccessible to human labor. They are equipped with optical and thermal cameras, lasers, and sensors capable of seeing, recording information, and sending it back to operators in real-time. The data collected may be used to create 3D maps of pipelines, allowing operators to identify, address, and avoid future issues by taking contingency measures. The most advanced robots being used in this sector are equipped with AI technology that enables them to learn and develop.

Solinas Integrity is a startup based in India that provides robotic solutions for in-pipe inspections, leak detection, pigging, and tank inspection. The iGlobus, a patented in-pipe inspection robot developed by the company, is equipped with various sensors to identify leaks in oil and gas pipelines. iPig, the startup’s second in-pipe inspection robot, assesses the condition of oil and gas pipelines. Solinas also offers the SEPoy robot for tank inspection and the Endobot for leak detection.

Tubot robotic is another startup specializing in pipeline crawler manufacturing; it is creating an oil-field pipeline robot in collaboration with Transneft-Diaskan and Transneft businesses. Since 2017, the firm has collaborated with Inspector Systems on pipe system diagnostics projects, including creating an explosion-safe oil pipe system.

Another Russian company named Diakont, with offices located in San Diego, creates a robot capable of crawling into “unpiggable” sections of a pipeline. The RODIS crawler is attached to a truck, which is driven through the pipe by an operator. It can alter shape and size and navigate around curves and bends in the line, and it employs ultrasound, lasers, and cameras to provide detailed information on corrosion, cracks, and dents.

Increasing automation and the use of robotics can assist energy businesses in increasing efficiency in various areas by keeping production flowing, scheduling repairs, detecting leaks, inspecting machinery and infrastructure, monitoring pipelines, and even carrying out repairs. Operational efficacy is inevitable with the increasing use of robots as oil and gas businesses will be able to downsize their staff or relieve their personnel from dull, repetitive, and dangerous activities to focus on more skilled jobs. With that being said, automation and the use of crawler robots can also generate employment difficulties. Reassigning jobs from people to robots can lead to job losses and a skills gap when individuals discover their knowledge no longer fits the demands of oil and gas firms.

Even though it is undeniable that the growing usage of robotics has improved safety and efficiency in the energy business, greater automation is a double-edged sword. Like any new technology, it comes with its own set of problems. Designing an in-pipe inspection robot is a challenging undertaking. The design challenges include mobility, steering ability, turning radius, size and form adaptation, etc. Robots are still highly costly and companies have not yet been able to lower the operational expenses. Online adaptability, flexibility, stability, and autonomy are all important considerations as well.

While most existing technologies are focused on inspection, the greater opportunity may be in actively inspecting pipelines with micro-bots. The University of Sheffield’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, directed by Professor Kirill Horoshenkov, is one of the universities tasked with this project. The new research initiative will assist utility firms in monitoring buried pipe infrastructure and resolving problems as they occur, resulting in reduced traffic and inconvenience for the general people. The project will be the first invention of its type to deploy swarms of miniaturized robots in underground pipes with other in-pipe sensors, navigation, and communication technologies with long-term autonomy. Although it is too early to tell how effective the solution could be for oil & gas pipelines, the energy sector will be keeping a close eye on it.

The future

The robotics sector is continually evolving. Robots are becoming smaller, smarter, more dependable, maneuverable, and capable of doing more jobs. Following the popularity of cloud computing and software-as-a-service (SaaS), several robotics firms are considering offering robotics-as-a-service (RaaS), allowing energy companies to share the expenses of robots. Costs will also fall as their use grows, and new business models will emerge, which will be safer to use and steer the oil and gas industry in a new direction.

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