This article, written by Special Publications Editor Adam Wilson, contains highlights of paper SPE 181409, “A Robot That Removes Operators From Extreme Environments,” by Ian Peerless, SPE, IPKA Consultancy, and Adam Serblowski and Berry Mulder, Shell Global Solutions International, prepared for the 2016 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, Dubai, 26–28 September. The paper has not been peer reviewed.

Robots have the potential to move human operators away from uncomfortable, potentially risky environments and into comfortable, safe control rooms. Remotely operated vehicles have already achieved this for subsea fields; however, before this approach can be extended to surface facilities, the robots must be reliable and safe in potentially explosive environments. The Sensabot robot has addressed these challenges and could be the foundation on which future generations of robots are built.


In 2010, a technology plan was prepared that focused on the specific challenges facing projects in the Kashagan Field in Kazakhstan:

Climatic temperatures typically ranging from −25°C to +35°C

High hydrogen sulfide concentrations in produced gas

Raw-gas-injection pressures as high as 690 bara

Ice-bound unmanned artificial islands in the winter

These challenges require operators to wear breathing apparatuses and cumbersome insulated clothing in winter that hampers their movement. In summer, the breathing apparatus creates the risk of heat exhaustion.

One contribution to the technology plan was the concept of remotely operated robots. These could remain permanently on location and could be driven by operators located in a safe environment.

The Robot Concept

The first stage of the Sensabot project was to identify the robot’s high-level functional requirements. These fall into three categories: user acceptance, safety, and independence.

User Acceptance. The project team recognized that, although the upstream oil and gas industry has been using remotely operated vehicles for many years in subsea environments, there has been little significant use of robots for surface facilities. The team felt that onshore operators would view the robot with suspicion, so it needed to work reliably to build confidence. By simplifying its functional requirements, the project team could focus on fewer features and decrease the risk of failures.

In this context, it was decided to focus on simple sensing tasks rather than the manipulation of items such as valves and switches. Therefore, Sensabot was designed to perform daily operator inspections of the plant. It was equipped with a range of sensors that replicated those of a human operator (Fig. 1): cameras (sight), gas detectors (smell), a vibration detector (touch), and a microphone (hearing). Later in the development, a thermal imaging camera was added.

Another important design decision was to minimize the amount of automation. Sensabot was not designed to eliminate the need for human operators, just to relocate them to a safe and comfortable environment.

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