Snake Arm Robot Can Save Lives

Friday, March 16, 2018 @ 11:03 AM gHale

An inspection engineer operates the robotic technology on the Alba Northern Platform in the U.K. North Sea.
Chevron photo

Organizations and companies are constantly looking outside the industry for technology that drives safety and performance, but finding and adapting a solution suitable for offshore work is another challenge.

Along those lines, late last year Chevron Energy Technology Company (ETC), in partnership with the Chevron Upstream Europe (CUE) business unit, completed an offshore trial for internal pressure vessel inspection through the application of an innovative robotic arm.

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While robotics inspection is an established technology in the nuclear and aerospace industries, by partnering with service providers from these industries Chevron has been able to develop solutions for use in the oil, gas and petrochemicals industry.

The robot is a long, slender, flexible arm that can fit through small openings and around obstacles, with the ability to navigate through an open space using a process that enables the arm to follow the same path as its front end. The innovative technology enables users to inspect the interiors of confined vessel spaces – bypassing the need for workers to incur risk by entering the hazardous spaces themselves.

Here is a video of the robotic arm in action.

Traditionally, inspections of pressure vessels and above-ground storage tanks are carried out by humans to ensure the assets are safe to operate. The impetus for developing inspection robots grows out of concern for the safety of workers performing these inspections, which also requires shutting down the assets to ensure the inspectors’ safety.

With pressure vessels making up the majority of petrochemical assets at offshore and onshore processing plants, the opportunity to use technology to reduce human exposure to potentially hazardous situations, such as confined space entry, is an important focus area for safety performance improvement.

“Despite human-entry inspections requiring pressure vessels to be taken out of operation prior to the commencement of a campaign, statistics show that fatalities while performing these inspection, maintenance and repair tasks still occur across our industry,” said Russell Brown, senior reliability engineer for ETC.

“To ensure safety and reduce shutdown costs, robotic inspection processes are a vital technology development. Chevron and the wider industry have been looking for solutions that will help minimize human entry in confined and hazardous environments for tasks like cleaning and inspection – ‘Snake-Arm’ could be one of the solutions.”

In partnership with service provider OC Robotics, Chevron has been driving a project to explore the feasibility of robotic inspection of offshore oil and gas pressure vessels. Partly funded by Innovate U.K. (through the “Energy Game Changer” program), the U.K. government’s innovation agency charged with driving productivity and growth by supporting businesses to realize the potential of new technologies, the project culminated with last year’s world first offshore trial on Chevron’s Alba Northern Platform in the U.K. North Sea.

The first offshore trial took place on Chevron’s Alba Northern Platform in the UK’s North Sea.
Chevron photo

“Hosting the Snake Arm robot offshore trial in the North Sea represented a major milestone for the project,” said John O’Brien, facilities engineering R&D portfolio manager for ETC. “With continued collaboration and partnership, we can assess the results and move forward to determine the technology’s best use among our worldwide Chevron business units.”

“This is designed as a solution that assists in our long-term objective of removing people from hazardous areas and managing operating expenses for inspection and maintenance,” O’Brien said.

“This technology is particularly important for mature assets where asset integrity issues are more prevalent,” said Greta Lydecker, CUE’s managing director. “Having innovative techniques like Snake Arm will allow us to help prevent serious incidents, better manage our assets, minimize shutdown times and inspection-related costs, and improve production reliability.”

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