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Strides in robotics taking the pressure off vessel inspection

Pressure vessel inspection
Pressure vessel inspection

The use of robotics to inspect dangerous pressure vessels could save the energy industry more than £240million per year.

That estimate comes from Aberdeen’s Oil and Gas Technology Centre (OGTC), which has invested in three projects involving non-intrusive inspection (NII), to make the process safer and more efficient.

The £1.1million grant is for work with advanced inspection firm Sonomatic, as well as Strathclyde University, which came about through the centre’s “Call for Ideas” for asset integrity.

Sonomatic’s project involves developing the “next generation” of NII robotics, which will check the wall-thickness of pressure vessels to determine their condition.

It will be able to detect any sort of degradation of the vessel from the outside.

Sonomatic says the benefits are twofold – removing the need for vessels to be shut down during inspection, and negating the need for staff to be sent in to carry out confined space inspection.

Mark Stone, integrity services manager at Sonomatic, said: “Ultimately the benefit to our clients is that the inspection is done faster and carried out more effectively.

“What we are doing today is bringing on a step change in technology that has only become available in the last few years.

“We really want to take advantage of that technology and make something that is a lot smaller and more effective than anything currently used in inspection.

“The biggest benefit is that you don’t have to have a person doing confined space inspections, which is one of the biggest risks in the industry.”

The project is set to kick off in May.

Similarly, Strathclyde University is developing two projects aimed at improving the safety of vessel inspections offshore.

The university is working to develop a new robot crawler, equipped with a combination of wide field-of-view cameras and 3D laser scanning and testing technology.

Existing crawlers can only be used when there is a clear line-of-sight for the operator.

The new robot’s scanning capabilities will create a 3D representation of the inspection site, meaning it can be operated remotely.

Gordon Dobie, from the University’s Centre for Ultrasonic Engineering, is behind the work.

He said: “This exciting development will greatly expand the number of situations where the robotic systems can be deployed.

“Using robots to improve inspections reduces the chance of asset failures, which reduces the risk of environmental disaster and large scale loss of life.

“Reducing the need to send inspectors into challenging environments helps make the oil and gas industry safer.”

Strathclyde University is also developing technology involving swarms of small, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for sophisticated inspection of offshore platforms.

Drone swarms are already being adopted by the military for logistics operations, and the university says it could provide a safe and cost-effective alternative to human inspection.

Work on non-intrusive inspection for pressure vessels and offshore assets has been a key priority for the OGTC since its creation.

It is working with a number of offshore firms to trial the technology, as the industry makes the move to automation to improve costs and safety.

Rebecca Allison, asset integrity solutions manager at the OGTC, said: “We’ve been working with a number of companies to raise awareness of non-intrusive inspection techniques.

“It has been very much that the industry has been really supporting us, giving us information, access to data and field trials and giving us a steer in helping us initiate this.

“We have been conducting a number of trials with Total on validating some technology but we’re also working with ABB on the application of some of these techniques.

“Pressure vessel inspection using robotics is estimated to save around £242million to the industry so there’s a real significance as to why we’re doing this.

“Then there’s also the safety aspect as well so we’re not sending people into a hazardous environment, which is very dangerous and has led to fatalities in the past.”

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