Robotics | Article

Inspector Gadgets: The Rise of Robots in Infrastructure Inspection

With the right engineering, machines can now go where humans cannot.

Written by: Jim Romeo

Inspection robots have risen to the task of surveying some of the most severe industrial environments, which would otherwise be dangerous, time-consuming, and costly for human inspectors. These locations include difficult-to-access areas such as bridge arches, girders, drilling platforms, oil, water and wastewater pipes, and large tunnels.

Since such environments may not be safe for humans, inspection robots are not only a viable solution, but an ideal one. The oil and gas industry represents the largest segment utilizing inspection robots, which can observe critical components such as pipes, reactors, columns, and pressure vessels. Robots perform well in harsh conditions, including gaseous environments, high pressure areas, extreme temperatures, and among corrosive chemicals. Such situations may lead to such failures as cracking, leakage, deflections, deformities, and other anomalies in the infrastructure.

Safe and consistent

Safety isn’t the only advantage to employing inspection robots. Reliability also is a big factor.

“Robotics makes conducting industrial inspections safer and more consistent,” says Wes Kirkland, director, technical sales, Americas for Eddyfi Technologies, which creates of inspection robots. “We are taking people out of potentially dangerous situations while providing a level of inspection repeatability that is hard to achieve manually. Robotic inspection is quickly becoming the norm for industrial inspection and because of this we are seeing more use cases and finding new and interesting ways to conduct inspections that were previously not possible.”

The value of inspection robots is gaining traction as major industries realize their value. According to the research firm Technavio, between 2017 and 2021, the global inspection robot market will have grown at a compound annual growth rate of 16% plus, reaching more than $3 billion. The oil and gas industry, as well as the petrochemical sector, will be major players in this growth.

Robotic inspection is quickly becoming the norm for industrial inspection and because of this we are seeing more use cases and finding new and interesting ways to conduct inspections that were previously not possible.
Wes Kirkland Inuktun

Going underground

For example, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) needed to inspect a pipeline associated with the Franklin-Muskego Force Main that serves the greater Milwaukee region. The pipeline carries wastewater along approximately 3 miles of 24-inch and 30-inch ductile iron pipe.

Pure Technologies, a technology firm aimed at utilities and infrastructure owners, helped MMSD implement an inspection system designed to transport sensors and tools through dewatered pipe, or even when submerged in most types of effluent. The robotic multisensor platform carried a variety of assessment tools inside the pipeline in a single deployment to detect anomalies.

Ultimately, 13 pipes were found to have a total of 16 electromagnetic anomalies consistent with localized wall loss. MMSD used the results to drive decisions to excavate and repair one pipe section with wall degradation and helped restore the main to a satisfactory condition.

Access for assessment

Another example that highlights the benefits of using inspection robots is the BIKE platform by GE Inspection Robotics, a compact magnetic wheeled robot used to inspect equipment in the power, oil and gas industries. The robot’s mobility enables it to climb and move about various complex structures and overcome obstacles in the way.

The robot accessed a turbine used to pump up a reservoir, which subsequently flows to produce hydroelectric power. The turbine operates intermittently over a continuous time frame, usually operating in the evening during off-peak electrical periods to reduce kilowatt consumption. Its internal condition is difficult for humans to inspect. The BIKE platform was used to access the internals of the turbine without disassembly, which would have been costly and disruptive to the facility’s operation.

Now, with robots, this inspection and others like it are not only less dangerous, but also more accurate.