Japanese players engage in robotics project to enable autonomous ops on oil & gas platforms

Two Japan-headquartered companies – Yokogawa Electric Corporation and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) – have been selected to undertake an AI-enabled robot system project for the Nippon Foundation. This project aims to enable autonomous operations on offshore oil and gas platforms to improve the safety of inspection work.

While workers currently conduct daily patrol and emergency inspections on offshore oil and gas platforms, this can be a difficult task due to changing weather conditions and the risk of exposure to toxic gases. As a promising solution to this problem, the use of robots is growing in the industry.

However, since the image and sound data acquired by robots cannot be interpreted as accurately by the operators who man the plant control systems, it is necessary to convert that into meaningful data. To complicate matters further, offshore platforms – unlike onshore plants – have limited access to public telecommunication services, thus, it is necessary for each facility to have its own telecommunications infrastructure for the operation of robot systems.

Keeping these issues at the forefront, Yokogawa and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries revealed on Tuesday that they were selected by the Nippon Foundation, a private, non-profit grant-making organisation, to undertake a project as part of the Nippon Foundation – DeepStar Joint Research and Development Programme for the promotion of decarbonisation in the field of offshore oil and natural gas.

As a reminder, the Nippon Foundation and the DeepStar consortium concluded a memorandum of understanding on 6 December 2021, thus, with funding provided by the Nippon Foundation, the two organisations intend to work together to promote the development of decarbonisation technologies.

The latest project, involving MHI and Yokogawa, is scheduled to start on 1 June 2022 and aims to develop an automatic inspection system that utilises robots to identify and predict hazards in offshore facilities. The two players explain that the use of a wide variety of robots to enable unmanned operations and thereby reduce the risk of performing inspections on offshore platforms has long been considered. However, the firms elaborate that centralised coordination of individual robots is complex as it requires the management of multiple systems and the data that they acquire.

Furthermore, Yokogawa has already been engaged in the research and development of a robot service platform that centralises the management of multiple robots and seamlessly links them with existing control systems. Therefore, the new project with MHI is expected to leverage Yokogawa’s previous findings and build a communications infrastructure and robot system that is well suited for the environment found on offshore platforms. This new project will also utilise an AI application to convert for use in offshore platform operations the image and sound data acquired by robots.

The two Japanese players further say that a proof-of-concept test will be carried out as part of the project, using the second-generation EX ROVR plant inspection robot that MHI introduced to the market in April under the name ASCENT.

The two firms believe that with its explosion-proof features certified by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and ATEX certification, the EX ROVR makes positive contributions to enhancing worker safety, boosting work efficiency, and improving facility operating rates by performing round-the-clock inspections under potentially explosive atmosphere conditions such as Zone 1 combustible gas.

Source Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI)
Source: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI)

Additionally, the adoption of a 6-DOF (i.e. degrees of freedom) explosion-proof manipulator with a light-equipped camera enables close-up and front-facing photography, from diverse positions, of complexly arranged plant instrumentation, says MHI. The company adds that measurement of gas density, sound recording, and acquisition of thermal images are also possible and when used in combination with the online application provided as a standard feature, the operator can perform remote setting and management of inspection schedules and confirmation of inspection data.

The two Japanese companies outline that remote monitoring enables swift identification of on-site conditions in the event of an incident occurring in the plant, which would contribute to higher plant inspection efficiency and safe, swift resolution of the incident.

Yokogawa and MHI agree that robotics represents a “key technology that is paving the way to industrial autonomy,” and have already entered into a cooperation agreement regarding the utilisation of robots in the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. This project will enable the two companies to jointly research and develop a robot system that is well suited for a variety of environments and situations.

Second-generation EX ROVR called ASCENT; Courtesy of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI)
Second-generation EX ROVR called ASCENT; Courtesy of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI)

This will be done by employing several methods including the development of a robot service platform that links robots and control systems on offshore platforms, an AI application for the robot service platform and a robot system consisting of the robot service platform, robots, and a plant control system. The firms will also carry out a PoC test using MHI’s EX ROVR robot.