feature petrobots: droids on a mission to keep humans safe

Who can inspect the floor of a storage tank while it still contains a highly flammable and toxic petroleum product? No person, of course. But “Tank,” a robot, could be up to the challenge.

Tank is part of a new breed of robots being created to work alongside people in the oil and gas and petrochemical industries with the mission to keep us safe. “Petrobots” will soon be doing jobs that are either too risky or impossible for humans to achieve.


Petrobot is a three-year joint-industry research project supported by a grant from the European Commission. Now in its final year, the project is creating robotic tools for the inspection of pressure vessels and storage tanks. Chevron, through its Aberdeen, Scotland-based, Chevron Upstream Europe (CUE) business unit and Global Technology Center (GTC), is among the consortium of 10 companies funding the research. The project mobilizes the complete value chain of robotics, technology and inspection providers and end-users in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries.

the petrobot project

The PETROBOT project aims to develop a series of robots which can be used by inspectors to conduct remote inspection of pressure vessels and storage tanks widely used in the oil, gas and petrochemical industry.
the petrobot project

John O’Brien, focus area manager for Energy Technology Company (ETC), was involved in the initial identification of applications for Chevron. “Robotic inspection is a firmly established technology in the nuclear and aerospace industries. Partnering with service providers from these industries has enabled us to develop solutions for use in our own industry,” he said.

process safety icon

did you know?

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an average of 92 people die in the United States every year working in confined spaces. Repair, maintenance, cleaning and inspection activities account for a quarter of the fatalities.

The Petrobot team has developed three offline pressure vessel inspection robots and one online tank robot, used for inspecting tanks that contain product. These are currently going through field trials to test the robots’ capabilities in detecting a range of potential defects such as weld cracks, pitting and wall thinning.

regular inspections:
the ‘dilemma’

“We inspect our assets at regular intervals to determine their continued fitness for service and prevent asset-integrity or process-safety-related incidents. This causes a dilemma as, to do so, we have to perform high-risk, confined-space inspections. To this end, Chevron and the wider industry have been looking for solutions that will help minimize human entry in confined and hazardous environments for tasks like cleaning and inspection.”

Russell Brown

Senior Reliability Engineer, Chevron ETC

Traditionally, to ensure the safety of people entering the vessel, oil, gas and petrochemical plants shut down during inspection operations. Vessels are decoupled from live sections of the plant, as closing a valve is insufficient. Then the plants are extensively cleaned to remove all products that can emit flammable or toxic gases. Larger vessels can require scaffolding to be erected to allow inspectors to access all necessary areas. Following inspections, which often last several hours, all of the preparation work is done in reverse.

Robotic technology like Petrobot aims to change all that, as it can significantly reduce this lengthy and costly procedure while also minimizing exposure to potentially hazardous conditions. Chevron’s participation in Petrobot is aimed at specifying end-user requirements for the technology, measuring robot performance against those needs and ultimately becoming an end-user of the devices.

Richard Hinkley, CUE’s general manager of Growth and Future Projects, added: “The Petrobot project is particularly important for mature assets where asset integrity issues are more prevalent. Having a technology like the Snake Arm allows us to better manage our assets, prevent incidents, and improve production reliability.”

Published: September 2016