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EU-funded project uses robots, not humans, to inspect petrochemical containers

4th September 2013
The European Commission, together with a consortium of ten European companies led by Shell, launches today the PETROBOT project, which will develop robots which can replace humans in inspections of pressure vessels and storage tanks widely used in the oil, gas and petrochemical industry.

European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes:
”Europe's world-leading position in industrial robotics is no accident. The Petrobot project illustrates our will to transfer cutting edge results from research to the market, opening up new markets for EU businesses and creating new jobs in Europe."

So far, to ensure inspectors' safety, oil, gas and petrochemical plants have to shut down during inspection operations: vessels have to be decoupled from live sections of the plant (closing a valve is not sufficient); then vessels are extensively cleaned to remove all products that can emit flammable or toxic gases; scaffolding is then erected in larger vessels, so that inspectors can access all necessary areas. After inspection (which often lasts for a few hours) all this work is done in reverse. This long and costly procedure could soon be reduced thanks to robotic technology, thus reducing the exposure of personnel to potentially hazardous conditions, saving the industry time and resources, as well as opening up new markets for the European robotics industry and allowing for the creation of new jobs in robotics manufacturing and maintenance.

PETROBOT will involve partners from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and Germany over a 3-year period. The EU will contribute € 3.7 million to the € 6.2 million project.

The PETROBOT project mobilises the complete value chain, including robot and inspection technology providers, inspection service companies and end-users. The inspection robots will be tested in the installations of the end-user consortium members. Special project activities aim at preparing the future user community to maximize the uptake of the new technology. These new activities could create new types of jobs and open new markets. As a technology area, it may become a strong export product for the EU, by exporting the robotic hardware solutions or complete robot-inspection services. Robots, as well as the inspection tools they carry, would need to be developed and produced in large numbers; robot-inspection services would need to become available. If the project is successful, it will stimulate innovation to address the more challenging situations.

The PETROBOT contract will be signed at Shell’s Technology Centre in Amsterdam, by senior executives of the EC and Shell, in the presence of the consortium members.

PETROBOT intends to develop and validate new robot inspection technologies for:
  1. Internal inspection of pressure vessels, when the vessel is off-line – a robot (in the shape of a snake arm or a crawler) will enter the vessel via a manhole or a nozzle after the vessel is taken out of service (off-line); the robot will then scan along the vessel wall for damages.
  2. Inspection of storage tanks, while the tank is in use – a robot will enter the tank while the product (petrol or intermediate products) stays in place; the robot will then scan over the tank bottom for damages.
To scan vessel walls or tank floors, robots will be using specialist inspection tools. These tools allow robots to detect any damage, and have to provide the same inspection capacity as obtained from an inspector.

Regular inspection of safety critical parts of process installations is essential to ensure their integrity.

The PETROBOT initiative was born out of a R&D program performed by Shell Global Solutions International B.V., part of Royal Dutch Shell Plc, with support of Quasset B.V., a Dutch SME with expertise in condition assessment technology development.

The ten-party project consortium, led by Shell, also comprises:

A.Hak Industrial Services
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The Netherlands