The robots are coming to oil and gas. This message is something we’ve been hearing a lot lately, what with autonomous trucks, piloted by Canada’s Suncor, to automated drilling rigs, robots that collect seismic survey data, and even self-sufficient, remotely operated entirely submerged oil production platforms. And that list is likely to grow in the future.
Besides all these major robotic applications for the oil and gas industry, there are also robots that can conduct pipeline inspections from the inside. An array of four such robots will later this year be used to inspect a 40-year branch of the Trans-Alaska pipeline system at the Valdez terminal.
The robots were developed by a Russia-based company, Diakont, which says that its pipeline crawlers—Remotely Operated Diagnostic Inspection System or RODIS crawlers—supply highly accurate data and they do it in real time, which helps with timely decision-making. From a single access point, the company says, its robots can examine up to 1,800 feet of pipes with diameters ranging between 8 and 55 inches.
Alaska Dispatch News reporter Alex DeMarban writes that the four robots, all with human names, by the way, will use lasers and a technology similar to ultrasound to check a 350-foot underground pipeline section for signs of corrosion. The pipeline branch feeds crude from the Trans-Alaska pipeline to storage tanks at Valdez.
This is not the first-time robots will be used for internal pipeline inspection, replacing the so-called smart pigs, or pipeline inspection gauges, that rely on magnetic sensors to detect corrosion and cracks. However, the smart pigs are quite long and cannot be used to inspect branches off the main pipeline.
DeMarban quotes a spokeswoman for the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. as saying that in the last few years, the likes of Alice, Dee, Fiona, and Gary have been deployed to several underground branches of the Trans-Alaska pipeline that were never before inspected internally because of the impossibility of access for the smart pigs. All the robots need is a clean pipe, flushed with hot water and detergent or diesel fuel.
The robots have retractable legs that allow them to basically circle the diameter of the pipeline, go into vertical sections and turn other corners. They are not wireless, however – they are connected to their operator by a cord via which the data they receive from their surroundings is transmitted. And here’s one fun fact from Diakont’s U.S. management: the three robots with female names got them because they are a bit smarter than the “male” one. They can crawl through changing diameters mid-pipe, the company’s director of pipeline services Brian Carlson told DeMarban.
Diakont says that its robots can be used for all sorts of pipelines, including offshore ones – an application that should have a bright future in light of all the worries around underwater oil and gas pipelines. A robot inspection could quench these worries—albeit temporarily—much better than a company statement full of verbal assurances.
Could all these robots one day combine into an almost completely automated supply chain? It’s not impossible. Automated rigs will drill the wells, extraction will also be automatic and so will field maintenance. How soon this will happen, however, is another question.