French oil giant Total has partnered with Austrian robotics company Taurob, and German university TU Darmstad, to develop an autonomous robot for deployment to an oil and gas platform in the North Sea.
Taurob and research partner TU Darmstadt won Total’s ARGOS Challenge, in which five teams from around the world competed to develop a robot for routine inspections and on-platform emergency operations.
The winning robot is expected to be deployed to Total’s gas plant on Shetland. It will then move on to operations on the firm’s Alwyn platform in the North Sea, some 440km north-east of Aberdeen.
The 90kg robot moves on two tracks and uses laser scanners to read instruments and valve positions. It can also measure air temperature and gas concentrations, detect abnormal noises, sense obstacles, and move with ease on slick, slippery staircases.
When working on oil and gas platforms, the priority for any machinery or operations is to avoid anything that can cause a fire.
“Our robot is also the first fully automated inspection robot in the world that can be used safely in a potentially explosive atmosphere,” says Dr. Lukas Silberbauer, who founded Taurob with partner Matthias Biegl in 2010. The robot is fully ATEX certified to ensure it doesn’t trigger an explosion while operating near explosive gases.
Falling revenues in the North Sea oil industry present one side of the argument for increased automation. But Total expects that it will also make inspections more reliable and safer.
Dave Mackinnon, head of technology and innovation for Total, believes that autonomous robots are very much here to stay in the oil and gas industry.
“Total believes that robots have the potential to play an important role on offshore platforms,” he said. “We are on the cusp of delivering technology that will improve safety, reduce costs, and even prolong the life of North Sea operations.”
Internet of Business says
The use of robots and also drones for remote or offshore maintenance – particularly in hazardous environments – is both a growing application of the technology, and ‘low hanging fruit’ in regulatory terms.
For example, a number of startups are focusing on drone maintenance of offshore wind farms in order to prove that the technology works and is safe. Authorities are happy to approve these deployments as test cases, because there are few other people around and airspace is less crowded.
In this way, the offshore energy industry is both an ideal application of robotics in itself, and a proving ground for the technology.