Team Researching Robotic Pipeline Inspection


Researchers at the University of Houston are reportedly developing an autonomous robot, meant to identify potential pipeline leaks and structural failures during subsea inspections.

The developing technology could potentially make the inspection process far safer and more cost effective, while also protecting subsea environments from disaster, according to the University’s news release.

About the Research

Thousands of oil spills reportedly occur in the country’s waters each year for a number of reasons. While most are small, spilled crude oil can still cause damage to sensitive areas such as beaches, mangroves and wetlands.

For larger spills, pipelines are reportedly often the culprit. From 1964 to 2015, a reported total of 514 offshore pipeline-related oil spills occurred, 20 of which incurred spill volumes of over 1,000 barrels, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The release states that the inspection of subsea infrastructure, specifically pipelines and offshore wells, is the key to preventing these disasters. However, current inspection techniques reportedly require a well-trained diver and substantial time and money. The challenges are even larger if the inspection target is deep underwater.

The SmartTouch technology now in development at the University of Houston reportedly consists of Remote Operated Vehicles equipped with stress wave-based smart touch sensors, video cameras and scanning sonars that can swim along a subsea pipeline to inspect flange bolts.

According to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), bolted connections have accelerated the rate of pipeline accidents that result in leakage.

The BSEE is reportedly funding the project with a $960,493 grant to UH researchers Zheng Chen and Bill D. Cook, who are Assistant Professors of Mechanical Engineering, and co-principal investigator Gangbing Song. Additionally, John and Rebecca Moores, Professors of Mechanical Engineering, are reportedly working in collaboration with Oceaneering International and oil and gas operator Chevron.

“By automating the inspection process with this state-of-the art robotic technology, we can dramatically reduce the cost and risk of these important subsea inspections, which will lead to safer operations of offshore oil and gas pipelines as less intervention from human divers will be needed,” said Chen.

Chen added that a prototype of the ROV had been tested in his lab and in Galveston Bay. The experiments reportedly demonstrated the feasibility of the proposed approach for inspecting the looseness of subsea bolted connections. Preliminary studies were funded by UH’s Subsea Systems Institute.

According to the release, oil and gas pipelines fail for a number of reasons, including equipment malfunctions, corrosion, weather and other natural causes. Additionally, vessel-related accidents reportedly account for most of the larger leaks. Toxic and corrosive fluids leaking from a damaged pipe can also reportedly lead to devastating environmental pollution.

“Corrosion is responsible for most small leaks, but the impacts can still be devastating to the environment. Therefore, our technology will be highly accurate in monitoring corrosion and will also help mitigate the chances of pipeline failure from other factors,” said Song.

Song has reportedly conducted significant research in piezoelectric-based structural health monitoring. His previous research efforts have reportedly included various damage detection applications, such as crack detection, hydration monitoring, debonding and other structural anomalies.

The researchers are reportedly working with Oceaneering International, a manufacturer in ROV development, non-destructive testing and inspections, engineering and project management, and surveying and mapping services. Additionally, Chevron will reportedly evaluate the technology’s future commercialization.

The SmartTouch sensing solution could potentially open the doors for inspection of other kinds of subsea structures, according to the researchers, by forming a design template for future robotic technologies.

“Ultimately, the project will push the boundaries of what can be accomplished by integrating robotics and structural health monitoring technologies. With proper implementation, the rate of subsea pipeline failure and related accidents will decrease, and subsea operations will be free to expand at faster rate than before,” added Chen.

Other Autonomous Subsea Research

In July, a Sydney, Australia-based startup reportedly developed an autonomous underwater robot that can inspect and clean biofouling on ship hull surfaces. 

The Hullbot is “an underwater drone which inspects, maps and interacts with [and cleans] submerged structures,” Tom Loefler, CEO and Co-Founder of Hullbot, told Cosmos.

According to the company, Hullbot enables gentle cleaning with soft brushes early on in the process, to proactively remove early-stage slime before macrofouling begins without damaging the antifouling paint beneath.

According to reports, biofouling can include slime, barnacles, weeds, and algae that can grow on ship hulls in just a short amount of time. The slime then forms the base for multicellular life to build up on the hull in the form of macrofouling, which Loefler says that can slow boats and require more energy and fuel consumption to keep them moving.

The International Energy Agency reported that in 2022, international shipping accounted for about 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. In an effort to reduce this number, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) recently adopted a new strategy on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from ships, which included an “enhanced common ambition” to net zero greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping close to 2050.

While shipowners can reportedly slow the macrofouling process by applying antifouling coatings to the underside of a ship, many of these biocide-containing coating formulations release toxins and microplastics into the ocean, while the surface preparation and need for frequent coating reapplication can make these methods unfeasible.

According to the company, Hullbot’s ability to perform frequent, light-duty cleaning can lower the cost of each clean so that it can be done more often.

Hullbot reportedly developed a proprietary underwater vision system that uses cameras and code, in combination with a number of other sensors, to enable their robot to efficiently navigate underwater, compared to the limitations of traditional GPS-, WiFi- and 5G-based autonomous systems.

The robot reportedly operates with a tether for power and data and is able to swim freely through the water using its thrusters, cleaning the hull with soft, rotating brushes with both the speed and pressure applied controlled without the need for a human operator.

Hullbot’s technology is reportedly being trialed across a number of other applications through partnerships with marine industries, marinas, research institutes and environmental organizations in Australia.

In the future, researchers say that they believe that cleaning daily with Hullbot could eliminate the need for antifouling coatings entirely.


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Colleges and Universities; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Environmental Controls; Inspection equipment; Latin America; Marine; North America; Oil and Gas; Pipeline; Pipelines; Pipes; Program/Project Management; Quality Control; Research; Research and development; water damage; Z-Continents

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