Digital innovations are inevitable to reduce environmental footprint, ensure safety, and reduce costs. The use of robotics to automate the oil and gas industry is a great way to increase productivity and make operations more efficient. Many Oil and Gas assets are located in highly inaccessible places either deep underground or deep underwater which are hazardous for people to visit. Snake robots, such as Guardian S from Sarcos Robotics and The Eeuleme, provide a cost-effective and risk-free way for oil refineries to operate underground and in the deep seas.
What are Snake Robots?
Snake Robots are essentially robotic arms that can maneuver into tight spaces due to their snake-like motion and streamlined bodies. These can be invaluable for surveillance and inspection purposes, especially in places where humans cannot be physically present. Oil and Gas assets require maintenance and inspection, and due to their inaccessible nature, it is extremely expensive and dangerous to carry these out promptly. This is where snake robots come in.
All Oil and Gas assets can be classified into three categories: aboveground, underground, and underwater. All of these locations are hard and just as treacherous to reach. They also require different technologies to solve the problem. One of the first applications of robotics in the oil and gas industry was the Manipulator Operated Robot or MOBOT developed by the Hughes Aircraft Company in the 1950s. The industry has come a long way and robots are now deployed for drilling, surveys, inspection, maintenance, repair, transportation, and production.
While aboveground assets may not be as difficult to reach, they certainly are just as difficult and dangerous to inspect. With small pressure valves and confined vessel spaces, these inspecting these factories can be life-threatening for its employees. Moreover, these assets usually need to be entirely shut down during the inspection to ensure the safety of the inspection officers, which can be very expensive for the company. This is why Chevron Energy Technologies is making a snake-like robotic arm that can reach these tight, high-pressure spaces and perform the tests instead of humans. The robot is equipped with tools and sensors which can effectively carry out the inspection remotely and potentially save lives.
Underground inspection is much more problematic and requires high-tech equipment, as well as the ability to maneuver into tight spaces. Since the main purpose of Snake Robots is to keep humans safe, they must be to send data and receive commands from large distances underground. Navigation of tough terrains is the first challenge, for which these robots often have some brand of 3D-mapping technology that allows them to "see" the terrain around them and soldier through. The inspection itself would require a large array of assorted sensors such as 360-degree camera surveillance, infrared sensing, and radiation detection. One of the biggest challenges for electronics underground is moisture and magnetic activity, which is why these robots must be fully water-resistant and be able to work around ferromagnetic surfaces.
One of the companies making some serious strides to solve this problem is Sarcose Robotics and their inspection robots Guardian S. One of the things that makes this robot highly elusive is that not only can it overcome all the challenges listed above, but it also has a customisable sensor kit for custom inspection. It is also extremely lightweight, at just 17 lb, which makes it portable and streamlined for underground travel.
Along with Sarcose Robotics, OC Robotics, a UK-based company, is also developing snake-arm robots for inspection purposes. Their technology is based on their patented wire-rope drive which makes the robot highly flexible. Combined with state-of-the-art sensors and tools, this wire-rope drive enables the robot to carry out a successful inspection with humans sitting safely on the bench.
By far the most difficult inspections to carry out are underwater inspections. These require a fully trained deep-sea diving team equipped with all sorts of sensors and inspection materials. Along with life-threatening, the whole operation can also be very pricy for the company since they would have to shut down the plant for a long time.
The Eelume Subsea Intervention Company has set the standard for underwater inspection robots with their snake robot: the Eelume. One of the greatest challenges in underwater inspections is simply getting the robot to where it needs to be. This is why the Eelume is designed to live underwater entirely. Moreover, these robots are fully flexible which allows them to survive the high currents and be able to pilot around the narrow spaces. Along with navigating the currents, these robots must also be able to hold steady against high currents to precisely examine certain parts. The Eelume accomplishes this by bending into a dual-arm system such that one arm can tether the assembly while the other can carry out the procedure. Just like the Guardian S, the Eelume is also equipped with an assorted array of sensors that can carry out the inspection and maintenance underwater. This futuristic technology can not only help the Oil and Gas industry but also the ecosystems around these underwater assets since this robot is fully eco friendly.
WhatNext in Snake Robotics?
These companies have made some undeniable progress in the Oil and Gas industry; however, there is still much room for improvement in the reams of snake robotics. There is currently some groundbreaking research happening at Carnegie Mellon University in terms of snake robotics. Their snake model is not just a pseudo replica of a snake's motion, but it is, in fact, the full picture. This snake arm can not only slither and swim, but it can also move sideways and climb up vertical poles. This is a very desirable property when it comes to aboveground applications that require scaling high pillars for inspection. These innovative solutions are still limited to the laboratories, however, they will surely be invaluable when they do hit the market.
The study of snake robotics is nested in the much bigger umbrella of bio robotics, which is dedicated to making robots that replicate nature. Along with snake robots, there are also robots that mimic insect motion and bird flight. As impractical as it may seem, nature has a lot to teach us, and just as snake robots have helped the Oil and Gas industry, these bio-robots will also go onto helping humanity in many practical ways.