The oil, gas, and petrochemical industry demands robotic solutions that can work in hazardous environments that are difficult for human workers to access and that address the challenges involved in health, safety, and environment (HSE) risks. Most robotic solutions are related to monitoring, inspecting, and maintaining infrastructure. In September, Shell, the largest oil company in the world, launched Sensabot, the first mobile inspection robot certified for use in explosive environments. The semi-autonomous robot is meant to work at a remote facility on a desert island in Kashagan Field, an offshore oil field in Kazakhstan’s zone of the Caspian Sea famous for harsh conditions, including sea ice during the winter, temperature variation from -35 to 40°C and a high level of poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas, making it one of the most challenging oil megaprojects in the world. The launch of Sensabot gives Shell a competitive edge over other companies, such as Eni, BP, Statoil, Mobil, and Total S.A, which are operating in the region.
Meeting Industry Standards and Guidelines
Sensabot is the result of a project that was launched in June 2010 in a joint effort including Shell, the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) in the United Kingdom, and ImProvia in the Netherlands. The prototypes Mark 1 and Mark 2 were developed and underwent rigorous testing to meet the criteria for IECEx Zone 1 standards and certification. According to the NREC, the robot is capable of performing the same inspection and reporting tasks that humans do. The robot design complies with NACE MRO175/ISO 15156, the standard for materials used in hydrogen sulfide-containing environments in oil and gas production. Moreover, the robot meets the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) safety standards for guided industrial vehicles and the industry standard in human factors engineering (HFE) guidelines.
The Complexity of Sensabot’s Design
According to Adam Serblowski, who is running the robotics program for Shell, the development of Sensabot posed an engineering challenge more complex than similar equipment sent by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to explore Mars and the technology should be seen as an “extension of the human worker” rather than as a substitute. The battery-operated Sensabot can be controlled by an operator sitting in the control center using a powerful private 4G-Long-Term Evolution (LTE) system that could provide connectivity to thousands of devices, including industrial smartphones, tablets, people, and material-tracking and condition monitoring equipment, ensuring that the robot is well integrated with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIot). The operator can monitor the robot’s progress via high-definition (HD) video and gather data about temperature, noise, vibrations, and presence of any toxic or flammable gases with the help of a variety of sensors, such as non-contact temperature sensors, gas sensors, and vibration sensors, loaded on the robot. The robot can easily drive through gravel, mud, slush, and snow, and can even climb vertical surfaces using rails. It can travel up to 3 kilometers with at least 4 hours of operation between charges and can work for 6 months without requiring maintenance.
Reducing Costs and Improving Safety
While the Sensabot platform is currently equipped for the surveillance of oil and gas facilities, different manipulator arms enable it to be adapted for use by emergency services, or for maintenance purposes. Shell is also seeking commercial partners to adapt Sensabot for other specialist functionalities and to expand the technology. According to Alisa Choong, Executive Vice President responsible for Digital Technologies at Shell, “Sensabot enables colleagues to do their jobs at a safe distance, while also lowering the costs of day-to-day operations. Sensabot represents the strong ambition of Shell to lead in safety-enhancing technology, especially in exceptional environmental and operational situations.”
Inspecting and maintaining the infrastructure that involves pipes, tubes vessels, furnaces, columns, etc. are demanding, dangerous, and expensive tasks. At a time when oil and gas companies are battling with reducing their cost of operations and improving safety systems, the use of robots seems to be the only feasible answer that can definitely reduce the need for sending humans to difficult and harsh environments. It will not be surprising to find many commercially available robots specifically designed for oil and gas companies in the near future.