Sophie Davies reports on TWI’s newly opened London South Bank Innovation Centre (LSBIC), and the robotics which could shape the future oil and gas industry
In June, UK-based technology company TWI announced the creation of the London South Bank Innovation Centre (LSBIC), aimed at pioneering new research in the development of robotic and automated non-destructive testing (NDT) methods.
Located in new 25,000-square metre premises just outside Cambridge, the LSBIC I is tasked with developing automated and robotic NDT technologies for a range of industries “wherever there is a demand for more effective, less costly inspection,” TWI says.
In particular, the new Centre will concentrate on technology for use in environments where manually deployed NDT techniques are hazardous or impractical. Their potential clients include a wealth of companies working across the upstream and downstream oil and gas industry, as well as storage tank operators and process pipelines in the petrochemicals industry.
The quest for greater robotic and intelligent automation is intensifying as working environments become harsher. Many of these inspection techniques can offer greater crew safety, and often better results.
Accidents at oil and gas facilities still claim lives. Between 2003 and 2010, a total of 128 people in the US died while working at offshore operations, according to the US Department of Health. That represents a fatality rate that is seven times worse than for the average worker in the US, it said.
As TWI points out, studies have shown that manual inspection can miss major defects in safety systems and structures as a result of human error.
In the first five years of its life, the LSBIC will house 14 researchers and support eight TWI-funded PhD degrees. As one of Europe’s largest research organisations, the direction of the Centre’s work will be determined by TWI’s 700 industrial member companies.
Professor Tariq Sattar, who was previously head of London South Bank University’s Mechatronics, Robotics and Non-Destructive Testing Research team (MRNDT), will lead the new centre.
MRNDT has already developed a number of robots, including wall-climbing and amphibious prototypes, many of which can be applied to the oil and gas industry. In particular, its work has produced units to carry out inspections of the walls and floors of oil and petrochemical tanks.
“Our applications are usually challenging and complicated,” Professor Tat-Hean Gan, Associate Director of TWI, told InnovOil.
These applications can be used for inspections in extreme conditions, for instance in high temperature environments and high pressure pipes, he said. They can also be applied in aggressive environments for deepwater risers and very small inaccessible areas.
“Through the collaboration with London South Bank University, we are able to bring our technology to the next level of innovation that will benefit our worldwide members,” he added.
Gan expects most of these technologies will first be adopted by oil and gas companies wanting to improve safety in Europe and the West, before spreading to the Far East.
Unlike automated NDT, robotic NDT has not yet been fully commercialised. Automated NDT, which has been employed in many industries, is already used in production lines. Many manufacturing firms use automated NDT robotic arms that are capable of working independently and together. Gan is convinced that, in spite of the “complex nature” of robotic NDT compared to its automated equivalent, developments are progressing rapidly, spurred by the already-high demand.
Indeed, the automated robot industry is already advanced, and continues to grow rapidly – particularly in Asia.
In 2013 the UK government identified “robotics and autonomous systems” as one of eight main technologies in which the country has the potential to become a world leader.
But it remains far behind its rivals in terms of robot development. The Chinese government, for one, is pushing for rapid development of its own industry, which is already one of the world’s biggest, and is backed up by major collaborations and joint ventures with international partners such as Zurich-based ABB.
In 2014, global demand for industrial robots reached a record of more than 200,000 units sold, the Frankfurt-based International Federation of Robotics (IFR) said earlier this year.
The strongest drivers of growth last year were the automotive industry, followed by the electronics industry. According to preliminary statistics on industrial robots, a total of around 225,000 units were sold in 2014, up 27% compared to 2013.
The IFR estimates that robot installations will increase by 12% on average per year between 2015 and 2017, with the most growth in Asia-Pacific, followed by Europe and the US.
Robots are seen as a way to reduce costs and solve labour shortage problems in China’s manufacturing industry, allowing companies to maintain a competitive edge.
Currently China and South Korea use the most industrial robots globally. In China alone, around 56,000 units were sold in 2014, more than double the volume sold in 2013, according to IFR statistics.
As well as solving safety issues, oil and gas companies may also see similar benefits through using robotic NDT technologies.
TWI already has some experience in the robotics and autonomous inspection field, through projects funded by the European Commission. Most of these reached Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 6, meaning “the robotic inspection systems had been demonstrated in industrially relevant environments,” Gan said.
These included systems to inspect marine structures, wind turbines, pressure vessels, nuclear nozzles, mooring chains and FPSO ship hulls.
The establishment of LSBIC allows TWI to take its research up a notch – enabling the company to develop those same systems to TRL 9 level, meaning that it can enhance the technology, making it capable of performing in operationally complex environments, said Gan.
“So far all the oil and gas companies that we have approached have provided positive feedback on the new initiative,” he said. “The industry is looking into reducing the cost of performing inspections at sites that are remotely located on large structures and/or in hazardous environments and hence not easily accessible to humans,” he added.
“Some companies highlighted that drones could be the future for inspections, replacing humans in life-threatening tasks such as inspections of offshore wind turbine blades or offshore platform towers,” he noted.
Others have highlighted the need for robotics and automated inspection for time-consuming manual tasks involved in floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessels. In particular, Gan said, they could be used within FPSO hull structures and offshore mooring chains, helping to reduce human errors in the detection of defects.
In the oil and gas industry, automated and robotic NDT technologies may take an “autonomous free movement” approach, Gan said.
The “autonomous free movement” approach would refer to when the robot is autonomous, i.e. it makes its own decisions on its motion trajectories and is free to move in any direction that it chooses. He gave the example of a robot on a large flat surface that could rotate on the same spot before heading off at any angle.
These robots could take the form of wall-climbing robots using vortex machines, permanent magnet adhesion and flux concentration techniques – magnet systems in which the magnetic flux lines are shaped to point in a particular direction, so that most of the flux passes through the object to which the climbing robot is to be attached, Gan explained. “This dramatically increases the adhesion force,” he added.
In all cases, these robots would be guided via the use of lasers or magnetics, he added.
The rising demand for robots across several industries, combined with governmental backing for new research in the UK, means that real progress could be seen in the development of robotic NDT technology in the near future.
Though challenging and complex to develop, the broad potential of NDT makes it an area that is ripe for innovation –and InnovOil expects to see many more hydrocarbon industry operators join the movement in the next few years.