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Case Study: Deploying Robots In Process Plants & Facilities

Robots have long been used in discrete manufacturing and machine automation applications, and their use is now spreading to address process industry applications.

Robots have long been used in discrete manufacturing and machine automation applications, and their use is now spreading to address process industry applications.

Process plants need leaner and more efficient operations to cope with ageing assets and workforces. One of the key technologies for reaching these goals are robots. They can be used to enhance safety while improving productivity and operational efficiency, especially in hazardous environments.

In general, robots are better at performing routine tasks than humans, who typically prefer and excel at more creative uses of their talents. Routine tasks are boring for humans, and because of this natural characteristic, they sometimes skip routine safety procedures and ignore dangerous signs in the field. However, robots can be designed to execute these types of tasks without skipping steps (Read more about our co-operator robot).

Robots also can relieve humans from working in hazardous environments, as well as perform some tasks humans are not willing to do. Their capabilities allow them to perform more mundane and dangerous jobs while freeing up workers for higher-value activities (Read more about our First Responder).

Another new case for robots is emission detection. A high-profile robotic application as environmental concerns gains traction in the oil & gas industry, to reduce “fugitive missions”. Methane is believed to be responsible for a quarter of all global warming. Methane leaks from wells, pipelines, or processing equipment can substantially increase the greenhouse gas emissions of the natural gas sector, while also wasting resources as methane escapes into the atmosphere. About 25% of methane emissions come from the oil & gas industry. Build a reliable robotics system for collection and interpretation of methane leakage data on installation (e.g., processing plant, platform), that can operate autonomously in an explosive atmosphere.

Robotics is not new to the process industries. For decades, they have been used in dangerous environments such as deep-water oil exploration, subsea inspection, and hazardous plant areas. Robots have been effective in these applications. They are, however, highly specialized and expensive, but technology advances are addressing these and other issues.

Sensors, computing, connectivity

Advancements in sensing, computing, and connectivity technologies are leading the robotics revolution. Advanced sensing and microelectromechanical (MEM) technologies are being used to make robots more functional, less expensive, smaller, and lighter. Smartphones helped in the development of advanced MEM technologies at low cost with a small form factor. This dramatically increased market adoption, and these technologies are now being applied to improve robots.

The internet and 4G provided communication and cloud computing infrastructure, artificial intelligence made an analysis of large data sets possible, and machine learning can be used to make decisions and take corrective actions in real-time. The convergence of all these and other technologies has created space for innovation, with robotics one of the main beneficiaries.

Mobile robots: How they help

In general, mobile robots must perform two main functions. One is mobility, which requires a means of propulsion, along with multiple onboard sensors for guidance such as light detection and ranging, high-def cameras, infrared cameras, and others.

The second main function of robots is related to the specific task and application. For example, robots use gas sensors to detect leaks, high-definition cameras to read gauges, and infrared cameras to measure temperature. On rotating equipment, robots use microphones to detect abnormal noises and vibration sensors to detect excess movement.

Robots to inspect assets

Asset inspection and maintenance has been the first target application for robotics in the process industries. The SPRINT Robotics Consortium is a user-owned and -managed organization, with its main objective collaboration on a new industry-driven initiative to promote the development, availability, and application of robotic technologies in technical inspection and maintenance of capital-intensive infrastructure. As ExRobotics we support on this moment 3 different uses cases.

First responder

Business Case: Traditionally emergency response teams wearing breathing apparatus and protective clothing are required to inspect events such as gas leaks on well-heads. They pass the information they gather to plant operators who act on the basis of what they’re told or ask the response team to gather more information. Often the response team will be entering a potentially hazardous environment containing high pressure, explosive and/or toxic gas. A first responder robot that is designed for potentially explosive environments can eliminate this risk in a similar way to bomb-disposal robots.

Product description:  The first responder is typically deployed from an emergency response truck and driven at short range using a pad controller. It acts as the eyes, ears and nose of the emergency response team keeping them away from the hazard during the early phases of an investigation. The ExR-1 first responder is unique in that it is Ex certified and won’t trigger an explosion if hydrocarbon gas is present.

Features:

  • Rugged, hand-held, control pad with joysticks that is easy for the emergency response team to hold and operate.
  • Direct WiFi connection between the control pad and robot for reliable communications.
  • Camera module with 3 cameras orientated to give a wide field of view.
  • Two light modules for good visibility in poor light conditions.
  • Microphone to detect and record sounds.
  • Gas detector to measure the concentration of light hydrocarbon gases (gas detectors for other gases are available as options).
  • Battery life varies from 90 minutes of continuous driving to 7 hours if the robot is stationary on location.
  • The battery pack is fully recharged in 3 hours so the robot can be quickly redeployed.
  • Maximum robot speed is 7 km/hour to reach the incident rapidly.
  • Grab handles enable three people to lift the robot easily.
  • Supplied with ramps so the robot can be driven on and off trailers and trucks.

Emissions detection

Business Case: Emission and leak-detection is a high-profile robotic application as environmental concerns gain traction in the oil & gas industry. For example, methane is the main component of natural gas, a cheap, abundant, and versatile source of energy that produces less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels when burned. However, methane itself is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane is believed to be responsible for a quarter of all global warming. Methane leaks from wells, pipelines, or processing equipment can substantially increase the greenhouse gas emissions of the natural gas sector, while also wasting resources as methane escapes into the atmosphere. About 25% of methane emissions come from the oil & gas industry. In the United States, fugitive emissions from the oil and gas industry total an estimated 13 million metric tons per year, amounting to $2 billion in lost revenue; globally, the value of leaking gas is $30 billion. However, a great proportion of these emissions currently goes unreported, meaning the scale of the problem could be bigger than thought. The European Commission is working on a first-ever methane strategy that could play a “very significant role” in enabling the EU to increase its climate ambitions for 2030, EU officials have said.”

Product description: The emissions detector is kept permanently on location on its docking station which continuously charges its batteries. It operates with no human intervention. It typically performs daily autonomous missions during which it follows orange lines around pre-planned routes. Its range of gas detectors sends an alarm to the control room if gas is detected at a ppm-level. It’s a vital tool in the battle to reduce fugitive emissions of methane, benzene and other gases.

Features:

  • Robots connect via the internet to computers, pads and smartphones anywhere in the world so that users can readily connect to the robot.
  • Camera module with 3 cameras orientated to give a wide field of view.
  • Light module for night-time operations.
  • Microphone to detect and record sounds.
  • Multiple high-sensitivity gas detectors to detect the presence of volatile organic compounds, light hydrocarbon and toxic gases.
  • The robot autonomously undocks and follows an orange line around the plant before redocking. Alternative routes can be programmed using the robot’s junction capability.
  • The battery life offers 90 minutes of continuous driving at up to 2.5 km/hour.
  • When not in use, the robot charges on its docking station with no human intervention.

Ramps enable the robot to drive over pipe-racks etc.

Co-operator

Business Case: Oil and Gas companies are increasingly moving towards normally or minimally unmanned facilities to cut development and operating costs. Sometimes these facilities are very remote (e.g. North West Shelf of Australia), harsh (e.g. the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia), or hazardous (e.g. the Caspian oil fields in Kazakhstan). Fixed instruments can’t be installed to cover all eventualities. In these situations, a robot can act as the eyes, ears and nose of a human driver that is located in a comfortable control room many (sometimes thousands) kilometres away. The robot can quickly diagnose issues. Sometimes this can mean a process can be re-started immediately saving lost production. Sometimes it can assess a situation so that when the human operators arrive they’re prepared with the right equipment and plans.

Product Description: The Co-Operator is kept permanently on location on its docking station which continuously charges its batteries. It’s usually driven by a plant operator from a control room although some customers allow their supervisors to drive the robot from their home. It acts as the eyes, ears and nose of the driver. It’s particularly valuable for hazardous and harsh environments such as hot deserts, arctic conditions and/or hydrogen sulphide contaminated fields. Also, it speeds response times for remote, normally unmanned facilities.

Features:

  • Robots connect via the internet to computers, pads and smartphones anywhere in the world so that users can readily connect to the robot.
  • Camera module with 3 cameras orientated to give a wide field of view.
  • Light module for night-time operations.
  • Microphone to detect and record sounds.
  • Choice of high-sensitivity gas detectors to detect the presence of volatile organic compounds, light hydrocarbon and/or toxic gases.
  • The robot is easily operated using an intuitive interface and gamepad controller.
  • The battery life offers 90 minutes of continuous driving at up to 2.5 km/hour or 7 hours if stationary on location.
  • When not in use, the robot charges on its docking station with no human intervention.
  • Ramps enable the robot to drive over pipe-racks etc.

Robot integration, coordination

A robot fleet management system is needed to schedule and manage the wide variety types of robots deployed in an industrial plant or facility, with integration made easier if robotics with open interfaces are purchased. Operators prefer one graphical interface to show an overview of multiple robots, but also require the flexibility to deep dive into each sensor or camera.

For this reason, ExRobotics co-operated with Energy Robotics to control their robot. With the fleet management software, our customer can integrate all their robots. Energy robots provide an independent platform to control robots of multiple brands.

For example, if a robot detects a leak or an abnormal noise from rotating equipment, operators need to be alerted immediately, and will shortly thereafter require much more detailed information to quantify the problem. Depending on the level of abnormal noise from an item of rotating equipment, required action can range from none required at this time to immediate shutdown.

As robots proliferate in process plants, it soon becomes impractical for operators to work with a different graphical interface for each. Information integration becomes very important to create a common graphical interface where operators can view the actions and alerts from each robot and drone. Adding to the complexity of the integration task, some of this information will need to be sent to other automation platforms, such as real-time control and asset management systems.

Robotic applications also can be categorised into simple applications requiring only a single robot, with more complex applications requiring coordinated action among multiple units. This coordination requires the integration of information to a control system capable of making decisions and taking actions.

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