Enter the robots: a new approach

25 October 2018

The UK Oil & Gas Technology Centre has invested in three robotic technologies to help transform pressure vessel inspection on offshore rigs. Ross Davies looks at how these new projects might help turn a traditionally burdensome undertaking into a more cost-efficient and safer task.

When it comes to assessing the condition of their process vessels and tanks, most North Sea operators traditionally use intrusive inspection techniques. This commonly necessitates shutting down the platform and sending an engineer into the vessel to carry out a manual inspection. The method is far from ideal, and often results in loss of production; platform shutdowns are costly – not to mention hazardous.

It is high time operators working on the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) looked at newer, more innovative ways of vessel inspection, claims the Oil & Gas Technology Centre (OGTC). According to a recent survey by the Aberdeen-based group – alongside engineering group ABB – the adoption of non-intrusive inspection (NII) technology could deliver increased production and lower maintenance costs worth up to £242 million per year to the UKCS.

Up to 80% of vessels currently operating in the North Sea could be examined using NII – without requiring a shutdown – claimed the study. Adoption of the available technology, however, remains low.

The application of robotics in offshore oil and gas is almost limitless, but as an industry we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. – Rebecca Allison, OGTC

New ideas and joining forces

The OGTC is looking to remedy the disappointing status quo concerning NII awareness. In April 2017, the group launched its first Asset Integrity ‘Call for Ideas’ initiative, which identified pressure vessel inspection as a “crucial challenge to maximising economic recovery from the UK continental shelf”.

In March, the centre announced it had invested in three robotics projects in collboration with inspection specialists Sonomatic and the University of Strathclyde, with an aim to completely transform the process.

The OGTC is currently working on two separate projects with the University of Strathclyde. The first is concerned with developing a new robot crawler, equipped with 3D laser scanning and non-destructive testing technology.

The solution will construct a virtual, dynamic 3D representation of the inspection site, allowing remote operation. The second project with the university is focused on the use of drone swarms, which are as commonly used by the military, as well as for logistics activities as a safer, more flexible and cost-effective alternative to the classical approach of human inspection.

The aim is to develop “the next generation of robotic NII technology, with improved agility and autonomy compared with existing systems”.

The benefits

“The application of robotics in offshore oil and gas is almost limitless, but as an industry we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible,” explains Rebecca Allison, asset integrity solution centre manager at the OGTC.

“Companies could reimagine their business processes and transform productivity. But this will only be possible if we understand the challenges and collaborate on the potential solutions.”

The OGTC and Sonomatic have worked together before. Last year, the latter was one of the technology providers – along with Eddyfi and MISTRAS – involved in three NII trials jointly organised by the centre and Total E&P.

The trials, which took place on two process pressure vessels on Total’s Elgin Franklin platform – while the vessels were online and operating – revealed NII delivered the same outcome as traditional intrusive methods (also tested as a benchmark), but without the costly shutdown and personnel entry into the vessels.

“NII allows vessels to be inspected in service,” says Mark Stone, Sonomatic’s integrity services manager.

“This means production is not disrupted. The cost of the inspection is also typically lower than cost of preparation and internal inspection. It also avoids man entry into vessels, meaning the major hazards of inspection are removed.”

So, what are the dangers facing engineers when it comes to traditional intrusive inspection techniques?

“There are significant risks associated with confined spaces and managing the hazardous substances encountered,” says Allison. “That’s exposure to everything from naturallyoccurring radioactive materials, to mercury and pyrophoric scale.”

“Confined space entry is one of the biggest risks in operation of pressure equipment, so operators want to avoid this,” adds Stone.

The cost of the inspection is lower than the cost of preparation and internal inspection. It avoids man entry into vessels, meaning the major hazards of inspection are removed.
– Mark Stone, Sonomatic

Limitless potential

The potential of robotics cannot be underestimated, believes Allison. It is an area of technology that carries the potential to not only make a traditionally burdensome task infinitely easier, but to eventually better the general performance of an entire industry.

“Robotics have the potential to transform the offshore oil and gas industry,” she claims. “We have countless repetitive, dirty and potentially dangerous tasks carried out every day. Integrating robots for these tasks will help upskill our workforce and improve job quality.

“Projects like this will help inspire and attract the next generation of oil and gas workforce. NII of process pressure vessels has a direct impact on maximising economic recovery. Every vessel is intrusively inspected; it has to be shutdown, resulting in lost production. NII means the condition can be assessed while the vessel is online and operating.”

For Stone, the new project represents a vital opportunity for the offshore sector to capitalise on the significant advances in robotics technology.

“The aim is to develop a scanning system for NII that will provide improvements in inspection speed – reduced time of inspection – and reduce manpower requirements to complete NII,” he says.

“The system developed represents the next generation of inspection technology, taking advantage of recent developments in automation, robotics, navigation and inspection capabilities.”

This March also saw the launch of the OGTC’s second Asset Integrity ‘Call for Ideas’. The focus this time around is on corrosion under insulation (CUI), a problem that can be ascribed to over 20% of the major oil and gas incidents reported within the EU since 1984, says the OGTC. By the centre’s estimates, CUI costs the UK economy £28 billion every year.

The Oil & Gas Technology Centre (OGTC) is looking into new methods of vessel inspection.
The OGTC has backed the re-imagining of process and productivity in the industry through collaborating with tech providers such as Eddyfi and MISTRAS in using NII.
The industry is finding innovative ways to capitalise on significant advances in robotics technology.

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