Robotic intervention

Elaine Maslin

September 1, 2015

Offshore workers could soon find themselves sharing their facilities with robots, particularly in remote, harsh or hazardous environments. Elaine Maslin looks at the Argos Challenge.

Homologation phase with the FOXIRIS robot. Photo from Total by VLK

Robotics are becoming an increasing part of life on planet earth – from car manufacturing plants to our own living rooms. Their abilities are becoming ever richer and more agile.

They’re going offshore, too. Total wants robotics to become part of the surface facilities – as intelligent inspection tools.

The French major is running a competition to help develop a robot that could operate autonomously in harsh, hazardous and offshore environments. It’s a progression of what the company is already working on says Kris Kydd, head of prospective lab robotics at the R&D department of Total Exploration and Production, based in Pau, France.

The firm has a track record developing remotely operated vehicles (ROV) and autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) technology (OE: October 2014). Robotics are also being used for flare stack and hull inspection, Kydd told the ITF Technology Showcase in Aberdeen in March. “It is only logical that surface robotics will come to oil and gas facilities, and not just in greenfield sites. “They could improve efficiency and operate at sites human operators cannot go to.”

Such types of robotics have already been deployed on offshore oil and gas facilities. Kydd gives the example of Sensabot, a 350kg robot developed by the National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in cooperation with Shell Global Solutions, for the North Caspian Operating Co., consortium, for use on unmanned islands of the H2S-rich Kashagan development, for faster, more efficiency 24-hour response and inspections.

LIO robot. Photo from Total by Laurent Pascal.

Total’s vision is a robot that can undertake inspection tasks and intervene in emergency situations.

The company, working in partnership with the French National Research Agency (ANR), has set up a competition to seek out the best robotics for the job – the ARGOS challenge, standing for Autonomous Robot for Gas and Oil Sites.

The French oil major hopes through the competition it can create a robot, weighing less than 100kg, which can move between floors, and on different types of flooring, from grating and corrugated iron to cement and wet slippery surfaces, under its own power. Total wants to improve the remote control functionality and, ultimately have an ATEX/IECEx compliant, technology readiness level 5, fully autonomous robot.

The robots are being tested through a series of competitions in Lacq, France, on a test rig, made from a gas dehydration unit currently used for training emergency response teams. “It will perform routine inspection, move around autonomously, read gauges and valve positions, and not only read and record but also know if valves are within their normal operating range and if not alert a human operator,” Kydd says.

As well as more routine tasks, it would also be expected to operate at the site of an incident, such as a hydrocarbon leak, and in potentially hazardous and harsh environments, ranging from -50 to +50°C, hygrometry of up to 100% and sea spray, heavy rain and up to 100km/hr winds.

Kydd says that Total hopes the ARGOS challenge will trigger collaboration within the robotic community and in the oil and gas industry.

The challenge is being run in three phases, the first of which ran in June this year. The second and third phases will run in March and December 2016. “The intention is to make each harder than the last,” Kydd says.

Five teams are taking part in the challenge: Air-K, Foxiris, Lio, Argonauts and Vikings.

They were selected from 31 entries received from 15 different countries. Four are based on track and wheel type locomotion systems, with a fifth a four-legged structure similar to Boston Dynamics’ robots.

They all have to meet set criteria, including weighing less than 100kg, being narrow enough to not get in the way of operators or obstruct 70cm-wide walkways and be capable of reading measurements at heights of up to 2m. Robots also must be capable of operating on site at least two hours without interruption and reach a minimum speed of 2km/hr.

In June, the robots were put through a series of tasks, including inspection missions, risk management and speed and endurance tasks. A path was laid out in a gymnasium for the speed trials and each passed the test. Vikings’ was the fastest with Foxiris’ showing promise by finishing the test with a remaining energy reserve of three hours.

Overall, the jury concluded: Vikings impressed the jury by performing an inspection mission autonomously in a record time of three minutes and 30 seconds; Argonauts demonstrated a good man-machine interaction system; Air-K showed strong autonomous mobility capabilities; Foxiris had exceptional endurance; and Lio achieved the best instrumentation reading and analysis.

The teams now have nine months to improve their performance before the next stage of the competition in March.