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Deep Dive: Robotics in Oil & Gas, Improve Safety and Productivity

POSTED 10/19/2020  | By: Tanya M. Anandan, Contributing Editor

Dirty and dangerous, yes, but there’s nothing dull about the oil and gas industry. The Three Ds are more like danger, Will Robinson, danger – danger.

But the times they are a-changin’… What used to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world is now augmented by an iron roughneck, basically a massive wrench used to connect and disconnect long segments of drill pipe called tubulars. Now we see the emergence of autonomous mechatronic solutions. Rig up, rig down – robot on it.

Now watch this robotic pipe handler work in tandem with a modern roughneck. Today’s rig floor operations can be remotely controlled, removing rig personnel from the danger zone.

From roughneck, underwater, aerial and snake bots, to robotic processes that increase the service life of oilfield equipment, and even robotic gas stations, robots protect workers, improve process productivity and reduce costs. New use cases and new business models are emerging amid a transitioning energy landscape. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) still dominate as more renewables (wind, solar, biofuel) come online. 

On the rig floor, an aging workforce and tough-to-fill jobs heighten the need for automation. The backlog of infrastructure needing repair and maintenance continues to grow. But the oil and gas industry is traditionally risk-averse and slow to adopt new technologies. Investment is often dictated by barrel prices. Still, opportunities exist for technologies that address these challenges with safer, more efficient solutions.

Deep Sea Dweller
Many of the Earth’s oil and gas resources lie beneath its oceans. Although drilling operations are down dramatically due to lower demand and lower oil prices, worldwide surpluses, and now the effects of the pandemic and other uncertainties, of the 1,000-plus active oil rigs around the world, nearly 200 of the active rigs are offshore.

Subsea robot designed to inspect offshore oil and gas assets without the need for costly surface support vessels. (Courtesy: Houston Mechatronics, Inc.)Oil and natural gas drilling rigs can operate in water depths of two miles. Many of these deepwater wells and pipeline systems have come to rely on unmanned underwater vehicles to help perform installations, inspections and repair and maintenance. But these unmanned vehicles typically need to be transported to the offshore site, which can be 100 or more miles out to sea, and then remotely operated from there, often via tether. This common scenario requires a manned vessel topside.

In 2014, a group of NASA roboticists set out to change that paradigm. Houston Mechatronics (HMI) was born. Their mission, to lower the reliance on large, costly support vessels for 75 percent of the work done in and around the offshore energy sector. They designed a combination autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) with the ability to switch back and forth between the two functional forms. In effect HMI created, and patented, an underwater transformer.

“We believe subsea operations are inefficient because of the reliance on large surface platforms like a boat,” says Sean Halpin, HMI’s Senior Vice President of Products and Services. “If we can remove the boat from the operation, we are removing an enormous cost. That’s the disruption here. We are confident we can accomplish IMR (inspection, maintenance and repair) for about half the cost of what everybody is doing today.”

Underwater Transformer
Aquanaut is an all-electric subsea robot that transforms from a long-range AUV to an untethered ROV with two robust arms. In AUV mode, with the arms enclosed within its hydrodynamic hull, the underwater bot can cover over 50 nautical miles in one mission thanks to an onboard lithium-ion battery and thrusters for propulsion. Along its journey, Aquanaut’s onboard high-precision geophysical instruments allow it to survey the seabed and collect data.

Once the robot reaches its destination, it transforms into ROV mode. The top half of the hull raises and the head swivels into place to expose stereo cameras and powerful 3D sensors. Additional thrusters emerge to provide better maneuverability. Two 8-axis arms unfold with built-in force sensors and grippers, ready for work. Manipulation tasks could include waterjet cleaning, inspection of cathodic protection (a common corrosion mitigation method for submerged metal structures), flooded member detection (FMD), and other tasks to assess the condition of oil and gas assets on the seafloor.

Communication is facilitated via an onboard acoustic modem. A small unmanned surface vessel relays signals between the robot and communication satellites, allowing the robot to be controlled from anywhere in the world. Although challenging, this communications scenario is familiar to Aquanaut’s creators from their days at NASA developing sophisticated robots for operation in remote locations, like space.

Based in Webster, Texas, only a couple miles from Johnson Space Center, HMI was founded by Nicolaus Radford and Reg Berka, both NASA alums. CEO Radford led research in humanoid robotics, including Valkyrie and Robonaut, for the International Space Station and future Mars missions. Check out this throwback NASA footage.

The company’s investors are betting on not only the transformational nature of Aquanaut’s form factor, but also the transformation HMI’s technology and services will bring to the energy sector as a whole. With oilfield services giant Schlumberger and drilling firm Transocean on board, HMI has raised $26 million over two investor rounds and expects to close a Series C investment within the next two quarters.

Subsea Service for Offshore Asset Inspection
HMI is targeting two main markets: 1) Energy, which includes oil and gas and a growing renewables sector, and 2) Defense. Right now, they’re working with the U.S. Department of Defense, but down the road, HMI expects international interest in applications such as port security. Aquanaut could stealthily patrol offshore waters without detection from the surface. HMI also sees potential in the telecomm market, inspecting and maintaining long transmission lines under our waterways. 

Aquanaut will head to market starting first quarter 2021, but HMI already has its first commercial agreement. Triumph Subsea Services will outfit its fleet of green-oriented vessels with the underwater transformer. HMI has built one Aquanaut and tested it in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, where astronauts train in a giant pool that simulates microgravity. A second Aquanaut will come online by year-end and ship to Norway. There, it will inhabit the ocean for the duration of 2021, undergoing offshore qualification testing along the oil-rich Norwegian continental shelf.

Watch Aquanaut in action.

But HMI is not only selling a platform, it’s offering a service. Customers, like an oil company, can either contract directly with HMI, in which case HMI will deploy Aquanaut and perform the work themselves, remotely operating Aquanaut and directly interacting with the customer. Another option is to partner with an established service provider in the oil and gas industry. In that case, HMI will deliver Aquanaut and make sure it’s operational, but the other service provider will provide direction to HMI and have responsibility for all customer interaction.

Autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) transforms into a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) with massive arms and a robust sensor package to perform work in subsea oil fields. (Courtesy: Houston Mechatronics, Inc.)In the future, fleets of Aquanaut robots will accomplish economies of scale. Take an Uber analogy. A company orders an Aquanaut and it reports for work when needed from its seabed-based AUV charging station, part of an emerging idea for mobile subsea residency. Current ROVs must be delivered from point A to point B as needed and require a team of operators stationed on a surface vessel. With HMI’s technology, one fleet operator, an HMI team member stationed onshore, will be able to supervise and control multiple robots.

Shared Control vs. Autonomy
HMI principals feel a high level of control is the most efficient way to deploy Aquanaut in the energy sector, where they can make sure the technology is operated safely and effectively. This is especially true in the risk-averse offshore oil and gas industry, where the idea of full robotic autonomy will need to marinade further. HMI uses the term “shared control” to refer to the semi-autonomous, remote operation of Aquanaut. 

“In the oil and gas market, the robot only makes decisions on how to do something efficiently,” explains Halpin. “If we say go touch this, it will arrange its joints appropriately. We give it that freedom, and we set a boundary for that action.” (That’s where its force sensors come into play.)

Aquanaut is capable of far more autonomy, but Halpin says this market is not ready for that. “They want check-ins with a human operator a lot more frequently than you would see in the defense market, where they really like a high degree of autonomy.”

So why the massive arms on Aquanaut? HMI anticipated the types of manipulation tasks it would need to do in these environments, such as handling tools and turning valves, but it will be a while until the industry is ready to relinquish that kind of control.

“A conventional ROV looks like a small fridge with two little T-Rex arms on it,” says Halpin. “So you have to move the vehicle a lot. Aquanaut provides 40 percent more manipulation workspace than a conventional ROV.”

If the vehicle is in a position where the arms are unable to properly perform a task, the vehicle will reposition on its own. There’s one control system for the entire robot.

“It’s all about efficiency. We don’t want to take three hours to pick up a tool.”

Maybe someday Aquanaut will go it alone. But only after it earns the energy sector’s trust. In the meantime, the underwater transformer will keep its human operators safely onshore as we learn what it can do on the seafloor.

Aerial Robotics for Above-Ground Assets
From subsea to aerial robotics, remotely operated robots are moving into new territory in oil and gas. Aerial robotics company Apellix makes drones for inspecting, cleaning, painting and coating the oil and gas industry’s above-ground assets. Storage tanks for crude oil, for example, can be up to 150 feet in diameter and 48 feet tall and hold over 6 million gallons of petroleum.

Aerial drone performs ultrasonic testing on oil refinery flare stack. (Courtesy: Apellix)American Petroleum Institute (API) regulations require that above-ground storage tanks’ wall thickness and protective coatings thickness be tested regularly. At high elevations, this is a dangerous job for humans. But not for flying robots.

“API 653 inspection of an above-ground storage tank typically takes 2 people about 2 days and requires a lift or cherry picker to go around and take about 60 measurements,” says Apellix CEO Bob Dahlstrom. “With our system, depending on weather, the condition of the tank and different environmental variables, we can easily get 200 measurements an hour.” We can then provide that information to the asset owner. 

“Their engineers will have a much better idea of the representation of the asset than if they took just 60 measurements. And we can do it in a day versus 2 days.”

Watch Apellix drones in action.

We first encountered Apellix at the Automate Launch Pad Startup Competition in 2017, where they won the top $10,000 prize. That same year, Apellix won NACE International’s Corrosion Innovation of the Year Award for their patented software-controlled drone for non-destructive testing (NDT).

Established in 2014, Jacksonville, Florida-based Apellix currently offers aerial robotic systems for NDT in the oil and gas, renewable energy and maritime industries. Testing includes ultrasonic testing (UT) and dry film thickness (DFT) measurements.

In UT the drone uses a probe to send an ultrasonic pulse through the wall of a steel structure to measure its thickness. These readings gauge corrosive wear and remaining service life of the asset. DFT testing measures the thickness of coatings on ferrous and non-ferrous metals.

Keep Operators Safe, Refineries Online
Keeping workers safely on the ground while increasing productivity are the primary advantages, but cost savings play a big role when robotic aerial UT keeps oil refineries online.
“Where we really save companies a ton of money, and we’re talking millions of dollars a day, is when we’re able to do a job without taking an asset out of service,” says Dahlstrom. “We’re testing the thickness of the steel on flare stacks, the big chimney you see on refineries that vent and burn off excess gas. You have to take periodic thickness measurements on those stacks, because they are corroding from the inside at variable rates depending on what type of gases are being vented and burned off.

“But to shut that system down, let the stack cool and bring in a cherry picker or lift, or a crane, or put somebody up there to rappel down and take those measurements manually, they could be losing millions of dollars a day in lost revenue. We’re doing it hot.” 

The robot doesn’t care if it’s 50 feet or 150 feet in the air and the surface it’s contacting with the probe is 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The robot is safely doing something a person couldn’t. That’s when the savings really accrue.

Apellix already has drones in the field performing UT and DFT measurements for oil and gas assets. Their next foray is spray painting. Apellix won an international competition sponsored by Dutch multinational paint and coatings company AkzoNobel. That led to a joint development agreement to bring a spray painting drone to market. Along the way, Dahlstrom learned painting industrial assets is less about aesthetics and speed, and more about the science.

“You’re protecting millions or billions of dollars in assets. They measure the thickness in millimeters, like the thickness of a human hair and thinner, so it has to be applied properly to be warranted by the paint company and also to protect that underlying asset.

“A robot is so much better at this because it has all the data to calculate barometric pressure, relative humidity, ambient temperature and the temperature of the surface being coated, the characteristics of the coating, and the speed,” says Dahlstrom. “That tells us the distance the drone needs to be from the surface, the speed it needs to be moving and the size of the spray tip. It’s very science-driven. For these industrial applications, that’s critical.”

Aerial robots inspect oil and gas assets while operators remain safely on the ground. (Courtesy: Apellix)To get the job done, Apellix has two models. The Opus X4 is primarily used for NDT and has four motors. It can carry up to 60 pounds of lift, including the aircraft, which weighs 18 to 22 pounds depending upon onboard sensors and systems. Opus X8 is used for painting, has eight motors and almost 120 pounds of lift (under current regulations, only allowed to lift 55 pounds).

“We just re-engineered the power supply because painting drones have to be larger than NDT drones so they can carry the umbilical cord with paint in it,” says Dahlstrom. “Now it has 10,000 watts on board the aircraft.”

Depending on the job, the drone can be tethered to shore power (a ground-based power station) for all-day power, or for short-duration work, they can swap out the battery every 15 to 20 minutes.

Flying Computers
The Apellix system uses a custom drone with an array of sensor systems, full onboard computer, proprietary software and an end effector with custom 3D printed components. Custom fabrication was the only option because typical sensing systems like GPS, a compass and barometer used by off-the-shelf drones and even standard aircraft are all adversely affected when in close proximity to large steel structures. 

“That’s why we had to load ours up with so much onboard computing power and so many sensors,” says Dahlstrom. “Because we’re in essence flying by our sensors, rather than flying by things a drone would normally use for its operations.”

In essence, Apellix drones are flying computers. It’s the software flying the ship.

But that brings up our discussion on autonomy again. U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations require the presence of a manned pilot. So even if the drone is flying autonomously, you still have to have someone there monitoring it.

Apellix drones are both manual and autonomous. Dahlstrom explains.

“There are certain autonomous features, like takeoff, where it takes off, hovers, calibrates and then the pilot manually flies it to the location where it will start its work. The drone is using the input from the onboard sensors to fly. We’re making 50 micro-adjustments to the flight per second. A human just can’t do that. So having the software and the onboard sensors do the flight is key to our success.”

Then there’s all that data. Dahlstrom says the data this robotic aerial system collects is more important than the individual job that it’s doing. 

“Right now, we give that data to the job owner. That’s creating a lot of value. It gives them an understanding of their particular asset at that particular point in time. But once you start aggregating that data and uploading it to the cloud (Apellix drones have cellular modems so they can transfer data to a secure data depository in the cloud), now you have the ability to do machine learning and AI.

“Couple that with all the flight data and high-resolution video capture, then when you start adding things like multispectral cameras that can see things humans can’t, you’re able to collect a rich dataset that has never been gathered before,” he adds. “Having this information can lead to actionable insight that increases the service life of the asset and keeps it running safely.”

Dahlstrom says they just completed a job in Alabama’s Mobile Bay right on the heels of Hurricane Sally. Now that’s putting an aerial robot to the test.

Robot Snakes Go Where Others Can’t
Back on land, small robotic crawlers repair gas mains below city streets, and snake robots are the eyes into the recesses of oil and gas operations out of reach to humans. The Guardian S robot maneuvers into tight spaces and explores hard-to-reach places. It tackles rough, uneven terrain and even defies gravity. This snake-like ROV is designed to inspect areas where humans can’t or shouldn’t go.

Remotely operated snake-like robot inspects confined spaces and hard-to-reach places in and around oil and gas assets. (Courtesy: Sarcos Robotics)Equipped with 360-degree-view cameras, a LED light package, two-way audio and an array of other sensors including GPS, the Guardian S robot is used for pre-commissioning inspections of oil and gas assets, where it can efficiently and easily look for everything from debris to structural integrity issues. Additional sensors can be added, including different types of gas sensing, radiation detection, and other environmental-related and situational-awareness sensors.

Watch Guardian S in action.

The snake robot can be teleoperated from miles away and reliably traverse challenging terrain including stairs, culverts, pipes, tanks and even climb ferromagnetic vertical surfaces without a tether. A lithium-ion battery provides power. The robot is small, less than 4 feet long, portable and lightweight. At just 17 pounds without additional sensors, the robot is easy to transport.

“Our operators will sometimes just sling it over their shoulder and carry it to whatever location they need to use it. Confined space inspection is one of the hallmarks of this machine. It can go through an opening as small as 8 inches in diameter,” says Ben Wolff, Chairman and CEO of Sarcos Robotics, the company behind Guardian S and many innovative robotics technologies.

In September, Sarcos’ Wolff was one of the distinguished panelists on The Future of Robotics Roundtable at Robotics Week 2020. Video recordings from 4 days of educational sessions and keynotes are still available. See the list of experts and register for FREE here

Mechatronic Trailblazers
Headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, not far from its birthplace, Sarcos has a storied past. The company spun out of the University of Utah in the early ‘80s with the first electrically actuated prosthetic arm. It became a bestseller around the world.

“This experience gave our team intimate knowledge of how humans could interface with machines,” says Wolff. “That was the beginning of our foray into microelectromechanical systems and the ability to work in tandem with human operators.”

That early knowledge in prosthetics led the company to work on robotic arms and humanoid robots. Sarcos had an entire division that made advanced humanoid robots and dinosaurs for well-known theme parks.

In 2007, Raytheon acquired the business and focused the robotics division solely on U.S. military applications. In 2015, Sarcos emerged from Raytheon as an independent consortium and turned its focus from R&D and custom development to a robotics product company. The Guardian series of products, including the snake robot and a first-of-its-kind battery-powered full-body exoskeleton, evolved from work at Raytheon with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA.

Today, Sarcos is an employee majority-owned small business with prominent investors, including Caterpillar, GE Ventures, Microsoft and Schlumberger. Whether you’re wearing or teleoperating a Sarcos product, Wolff says it’s about human augmentation. Human safety is a key driver. 

“Our mission statement is to save lives and prevent injury while increasing productivity. Where technology sits today, there’s no reason for people to be getting injured at the rates that they do anymore.”

He says their most recent application with Guardian S was checking for debris inside an LNG (liquefied natural gas) pipeline before it was commissioned. The robot is also routinely used to perform vertical inspections of boilers in power-gen plants and other tasks ancillary to oil and gas production.

“The robot has enough traction to be able to pull cabling through confined spaces, so it’s both an inspection tool and a work tool to get into hard-to-reach places,” says Wolff, noting one caveat. “The Guardian S robot consists of electronic components, motors and transmissions, so it’s not an intrinsically safe machine. It’s not designed to work in an area with a high concentration of combustible gases.”

The system makes use of digital twin technology. Sensors tell you what configuration the robot is in, what kind of terrain it’s sensing and whether it’s responding properly. The Guardian S operator control unit (OCU) is a rugged tablet with controls that allow you to wirelessly manage the machine at distance, view the digital twin and see what the robot sees with its 4K cameras. 

Watch the digital twin technology in real-time at the bottom of the OCU’s screen.

“The digital twin is an exact replica of the way the machine is performing, so it allows you to understand the context of what you’re seeing through the cameras and whether the machine itself is responding the way you’re expecting it to,” says Wolff.

The snake robot sells directly to customers, or to distribution partners that make the systems available for short- or long-term rentals or lease. Customers include oil and gas, power-gen and general industrial manufacturing companies where areas need to be inspected in the least invasive way possible.

 Full-body, battery-powered exoskeleton enables any person to lift and support up to 200 pounds without stress or strain on the body. (Courtesy: Sarcos Robotics)Wearable Robots for Heavy Lifting
Sarcos also sees great potential for their latest innovation, the Guardian XO exoskeleton, which will launch commercially in 2021.

“When you look at O&G and how companies operate on a daily basis, there are a lot of commonalities with other industries,” says Wolff. “Our customers in oil and gas have warehousing and logistics applications, manufacturing and kitting operations, and general construction operations. So whether it’s moving heavy components around, or manipulating relatively large components to get them shipped out, we’ve designed the XO to address all of those different types of applications across a variety of industries. O&G is no exception.”

The Guardian XO wearable robot is capable of repeatedly lifting and supporting up to 200 pounds. According to the company, it doesn’t matter what your innate lifting ability is, the machine will compensate. It can be donned and doffed in 30 seconds, and requires limited training to become proficient in its use.

“Whether you are young or old, big or small, you’re able to lift 200 pounds without stress or strain on the body,” adds Wolff. Watch Guardian XO at work.

“In rig up and rig down, when you think of things that humans are doing today to assemble the piping to go downhole, that is an opportunity where we think we can add significant value by taking the load off of the human, particularly in an industry where hiring has been a challenge.”

A shrinking, aging workforce and depleting resources are taxing an already beleaguered industry.

Robotic Cladding in the Sour Oil Patch
As oil gets harder to find, the industry needs to dig deeper. As they go deeper, they run into crude oil that contains more impurities. Crude oil with higher sulfur impurities is considered “sour.” Sour oil wells put more stress on the infrastructure and equipment, and the workers responsible for maintaining the machinery.

Right now, the number of active offshore oil rigs is in a slump, but technology marches on. At ARC Specialties, an RIA Certified Robot Integrator in Houston, Texas, they thrive on developing solutions for industry’s problems. Nowhere is that more evident than in the sour oil patch.

“The level of activity in the oil patch is directly proportional to the price of oil. So when it’s up at $100 or something a barrel, then people are all of the sudden motivated to try to get the oil that’s hard to get,” says Dan Allford, ARC’s Founder and President. “That requires our technology.”

Robotic cladding system equipped with an infinite rotation head creates strong welded overlays on the inner surfaces of large oilfield components without requiring part rotation. (Courtesy: ARC Specialties, Inc.)Pipes and valves that will come in contact with sour oil need to have the inner surfaces coated with a low-iron nickel base alloy to avoid catastrophic hydrogen-induced cracking failures. But these subsea blocks are huge chunks of steel, 3 foot by 4 foot by 6 foot in some cases, and they are riddled with holes to support all sorts of passageways and valves. Yet every internal surface and cavity must be cladded with the coating. That’s where ARC’s weld expertise and persistence pays off.

ARC developed a turnkey robotic welding system called the ARC-5 Infinity. This Infinite Rotation Robotic Cladding System uses a standard six-axis industrial robot equipped with a 7th axis, ARC’s infinite rotation head. It rotates the welding torch 360 degrees continuously so you can clad a complex internal bore along any axis without any part rotation.

“It makes no sense to rotate a 20,000-pound part when you could rotate a 20-pound torch,” says Allford. “That’s what the robot does.”

These parts have multiple intersections where different cylindrical-shaped cavities meet. Imagine trying to weld all those intersections, and they may be 3 or 4 feet down a 2-inch diameter hole. And the entire part is preheated to at least 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

“There’s no way a human could do it,” says Allford. “That’s why we’re selling these systems into India and places where they have very low labor costs. It doesn’t matter how low your labor cost is if a human can’t reach 4 feet down a 2-inch hole in a hot part.”

But wait, the complexity doesn’t stop there. All of the surfaces require two thin layers of coating. The second layer, which touches the oil, must have less than 5 percent iron to avoid hydrogen-induced cracking. 

“Every surface has to be done twice. One, to minimize the dilution, and the second, to have some redundancy,” says Allford. “Without this process, you have catastrophic failure in no time at all. Hydrogen embrittlement is an insidious thing.”

Infinite Flexibility for Large, Complex Parts
A process of gas tungsten arc welding with hot wire (GTAW/HW) produces the weld overlay. To offset the low productivity of the TIG torch, ARC runs hot wire to increase deposition and reduce dilution. Deposition rates are up to 8 pounds an hour.

Large oilfield valve is coated on all inner surfaces using a specialized robotic cladding system to avoid catastrophic cracking failures in sour oil service. (Courtesy: ARC Specialties, Inc.)Adding to the complexity of the process, you don’t want to break the arc. Because every arc stop and start has a higher potential for defects. This is where the system’s infinite rotation head, or 7th axis, is critical.

“A robot alone can’t do it, because it can only rotate its last axis about two revolutions before you have to stop the torch, unwind it in the other direction and then start again. But we’re making hundreds to thousands of revolutions.”

Watch ARC-5 Infinity in action.

A robot offers absolute flexibility in motion control, but it’s ARC’s proprietary programming software that brings the magic.

“We don’t write a single line of robot code,” explains Allford. “We’re just streaming commands to the robot like you do on a CNC machine. We’re actually generating all those trajectories in our ARC-5 controller and then we tell the robot what to do. We’re streaming motion commands directly to the FANUC robot every few milliseconds.”

The system doesn’t use the robot teach pendant at all. ARC uses their own optimized teach pendant to control all seven axes. All the operator has to do is teach four horizontal points and the software does the rest. 

“You teach four points and you get 200. We were able to optimize the software to make it very user-friendly.”

As subsea components become more and more complex, Allford says the ARC-5 Infinity system will become essential. 

“We just want to stay ahead of the curve. The oil industry is dynamic like that. We don’t even have the technology to handle the ultra-high temperatures and pressures of the oil reserves that we’re discovering. But the oil industry always finds a way.”

Yes, it does. Thanks to engineers and chemists around the world, industry is developing new ways to do things faster, better and safer. This specialty chemical company uses robots in a High-Throughput Experimentation (HTE) Laboratory to develop and optimize crude oil formulations in rapid time.
Robotic Refueling
While robotic refueling might seem outside the purview of this discussion, especially when it pertains to the mining industry, this technology is worth a closer look as it matures and begins to move into other industries and markets.

SCOTT Technology Ltd. is a 100-plus-year-old engineering company headquartered in New Zealand, with operations in Australia, North America, Europe and China. SCOTT has deep roots in appliance manufacturing systems and automation, but over the last two decades began diversifying into new regions and through strategic acquisitions in everything from sample preparation laboratory equipment for the mining industry, to meat processing technology and logistics automation. Their robotic refueling program developed over the last five years.

The Robofuel system consists of a self-contained industrial robot with a custom end effector, sophisticated sensing systems and proprietary software designed to enable autonomous refueling of massive mining trucks. The mining space provides a structured environment in which to launch and fine-tune this technology, but SCOTT sees broader potential.

Robotic refueling system uses a flexible articulated robot, custom end-of-arm tooling, sophisticated sensors and proprietary software to autonomously fill the gas tanks of massive hauling trucks. (Courtesy: SCOTT Technology Limited)“For our sensing systems to be able to locate a vehicle, determine the condition of that vehicle, and then position itself and perform some activity, in this case pumping diesel, most of those same algorithms and solutions can also be targeted at any number of other applications,” says Steve Russell, SCOTT’s Director of Mining. “Our Robofuel system refueling mining trucks is really the low-hanging fruit and it’s the logical starting point, but there are many other applications that we see in the future.”

Russell cites examples like replenishing railway locomotives, road transportation, or other mobile or semi-mobile vehicles. Instead of diesel, it could be lubricants, coolants or other types of fluids. Or it doesn’t have to be fluids at all. It could be loading railway cars or semitrailers with grain or sand, any applications that require personnel or activities around locating, coupling, connecting and other actions that are labor-intensive and have an impact on productivity, and more importantly, on safety.

“A lot of what we’re doing when we’re automating and innovating is addressing safety challenges,” says Russell. “When you’re looking at refueling mining vehicles, it’s heavy work, it’s dangerous work in and around large machinery. And with autonomous trucks becoming more prevalent, that is only increasing those safety challenges in trying to use manual operations to serve automated equipment. Safety is front and center in everything we do. However, it can be very challenging to build a business case around safety alone, because a lot of those challenges are difficult to quantify.”

Less Refuel Time, More Production
It comes down to productivity. For this reason, SCOTT is primarily interested in more structured spaces – industrial, civil, mining – applications where they readily see advantages through productivity and safety gains. 

“Robotic refueling allows us to improve the time that it takes to refuel by 60 to 70 percent,” says Russell. “That’s productive time that truck can remain on the circuit. That adds up to more tons of material moved, or the ability to do the same amount of work with a smaller fleet. If we can do the same work of a fleet of 50 trucks with only 49 or 48 trucks, that’s a significant savings over the life of an operation.”

Watch Robofuel on the job.

Although less significant, there’s also labor savings because you don’t need a manual fuel attendant standing wait at the fuel farm. Robofuel can also handle heavier hoses, so it can pump fuel faster for even greater productivity, while saving personnel from ergonomically challenging tasks. Another benefit of autonomous refueling is less spillage and less waste.

Robofuel can be retrofitted to an existing fixed refueling facility, or it can be located on the mining circuit or in the pit itself to save transit time between refuels. The system can also be moved around as mining operations evolve. 

The entire system is assembled in the shipping container at the factory. Then it’s ready to deploy and redeploy as needed. The door on the container automatically closes in between refueling activities, so the robot and its control systems, which occupy the back-half of the container, are protected from the elements.

The robot is a six-axis arm from ABB Robotics. Russell says they chose an articulated industrial robot for its flexibility to be able to locate and align to the vehicle.

A long-range RFID reader detects a vehicle as it approaches. Laser scanning systems evaluate the local area and are part of the safety perimeter system. Exclusive to SCOTT, the vision-based primary sensing systems assist the robot in locating and removing the fuel cap, inserting the fuel nozzle, and reattaching the cap when refueling is complete. 

Robofuel is fully autonomous and doesn’t require any direction from the vehicle driver. In the case of autonomous haulage systems, Robofuel communicates directly with the vehicle. There’s no requirement for remote control.

“Our customers to date have been the large mining operations that have larger trucks and larger fleets. That’s where we see the best payback,” says Russell. 

The productivity gains of robotic refueling are readily apparent in this industrial setting. In the consumer market, roboticized gas stations are just starting to emerge in parts of the world.

Robots at the Pump
In Finland, pilot programs are underway with robotic gas station attendants. Now Finns can have their petrol autonomously pumped while they grab a cup of kahvi at the adjacent vending station. Check it out

Developers of this technology expect people with reduced mobility, fueling stations located in areas with very low temperatures, and the autonomous vehicle market to benefit the most. Full-service gas stations could make a comeback (now if only they could tackle autonomous windshield washing).

Whether they’re at the pump, under the sea, in the air, or subterranean, robots are here to make life safer, easier and more efficient, no matter the industry. Oil and gas may be down, but not out. And technology keeps moving forward. Many of these innovations will have benefits in the greater energy sector for wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower. We’ll be watching to see where the bots, drones and ROVs take us next.

RIA Members featured in this article:
ARC Specialties, Inc.
Sarcos Robotics