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WILKINSON COUTTS / MATTHEWS INTEGRITY HUB: an up-to-the-minute information mix designed to help you with your lifework and career development in the asset integrity, inspection and NDE industries.

Matthew Petroleum Notes

SNAKES AND SWARMS:
The Robots are coming

Why can’t things stay as they are?

You have to be a born optimist to assume that things are going to stay as they are in any industry once the robots get themselves sorted out. There’s been delays built into how quick they have developed so far but in the past 5-10 years things seemed to have speeded up and before we know it, they’re going to be everywhere. Their effect on job roles will be scene-changing; as large, or larger, than the effect that computers and mobile communication devices have had over the past 20 years, and the first industrial revolution 200 years before that.

 

Robots are coming

They’re already here in a few places. The use of flying drones is now commonplace for the inspection of large structures, chimneys, oil platforms and the like, with battery life, controllability and photography/sensing equipment improving all the time. Automated NDE is also well established for pipeline manufacture, underwater applications and similar. Well done the NDE industry, that’s good progress.

The problem is, there’s nothing particular clever about these applications. In technology terms may as well be the first steam locomotive that ran in 1804.They are just the first crude step on a 1000 step ladder that is going to lead to the replacement of just about all human jobs apart from designing, using and operating the latest generation of robots. Before long, the operating role will disappear, as they start to operate themselves. Shortly after that, the designing and using role will go also.

Let’s look at how this take-over might look to us.

Is this the route to 2050?

It’s fair to say that the plant integrity industry would be not the number one choice of take-over route for our robot friends to take. Most in-service NDE is basic hands-on stuff requiring the planning of what to do and execution of the task by a human operator. It looks simple but there’s a lot of human hand-work required and at the moment, the cleverest robot in the world can’t yet do this. They are strong enough, but lack the processing power, mobility and dexterity, assuming they could decide what to do. How are they going to get around this problem?

Automated manufacturing inspection

They’ve already gained this foothold into to our system. In the manufacturing world (cars, consumer goods etc) automated inspection cells use six‑axis robotic arms, capable of working independently and cooperatively. The arms employ position sensors and tools all networked by feedback loops. The robots are taught by ‘teach pendant’ or offline programming. CAD files matching the component’s geometry are fed into a software application, and choose the areas to be inspected; this then generates the scan path for the NDE on the component whatever it is.

Robots are comingLifelike robots

There’s a lot of work going on developing a generation of robots that look, feel and act like humans, to make it easier for us to like interacting with a machine. Some have realistic looking hair and skin and react reasonably naturally in their environment. It’s difficult to see this type having much influence on the world of NDE activities; there’s no real need for human lookalike characteristics when performing technical tasks.

Advances in robot movement and articulation will make a difference. Hexapod robots have six legs and since only three are needed for stability they have a lot of flexibility in how they can move, or manipulate things.

snakebots

SnakeBots

Snakebots are robots look and move like snakes. Their ability to change the shape of their body allows them to perform a wide range of behaviours, useful for moving themselves around engineering plant. The cleverer ones are made by chaining together a number of independent links making them resistant to failure. If part of the snakebot gets stuck, then that section is jettisoned allowing the journey to continue. There’s no problem adapting them to size, they range from a 5-10cm medical version to 10m long and are getting smaller and larger all the time.

Some of these have already been tried for plant NDE/integrity applications.
One design has box-shaped body segments connected by pneumatically powered joints that move the segments in different directions independently of one another. Each segment is covered with textured rolling tracks, chosen to match the surface it is moving over. Looking into the future, snakebots are going to have a significant role in in-service NDE and inspection.

swarmbots

SwarmBots

Their full title is ‘Multi-robot organisms’; they are made up of large numbers (hundreds and soon thousands) of individual robots, the size of a bee, and soon   a grain of rice, which work together to form a single artificial life-form. They work as a swarm, able to share information and energy with one another, and manage their own decisions and direction.

Swarmbots are here already in a crude form, getting smaller and increasing their processing power all the time. They are going to be ideal for inspecting large plant items spaced over large areas. Want some NDE thickness checks done on a 50m diameter oil storage tank? just release your cloud of UT swarmbots and let them get on with it. Result? 100% UT thickness checks. If the tank is lagged, release them inside instead.

An NDE world with almost no people

Once the robot armies take over, there won’t be a lot of room for people in the world of NDE. We’ll have to find something else to do. If you are reading this now and expect to be around in the year 2050, cut out this article, stick it on the side of your internet-of-things-connected fridge and make a note to read it again then, and see how it looks.

For more information on the changing nature of jobs in the asset integrity industry read our article about the ‘great divide’ in  Integrity Job roles; what’s new?. See also NDE upskilling and mid-life career changing

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