Rethinking pipe inspection: Applying robots in harsh environments

Robot Tech

Pipeline inspection

Rethinking pipe inspection: Applying robots in harsh environments

Catherine Bernier
Content Manager
,
Content for Cobot

Inspection robots can navigate pipelines with exceptional precision and safety, greatly transforming how industries maintain their critical infrastructure. In this article, we give you the whys, the whats, and the hows of automated pipeline inspection.

In the world of industrial automation, pipeline inspection plays a crucial role in ensuring the safety, efficiency, and longevity of vital infrastructure. From oil and gas pipelines to water supply networks, maintaining the integrity of these systems is paramount. Traditionally, this task has been labor-intensive and risky, involving manual inspections that often require workers to enter confined spaces. However, with the advent of robotic technology, the landscape of pipe inspection is undergoing a significant transformation.

This article covers the role of pipe inspection robots, exploring how they work, their types, benefits, and considerations for integration, along with a glance at the market size.

How is robot technology used for pipe inspection?

Pipe inspection robots are engineered to navigate the often harsh and confined environments within and around pipelines. These robots are equipped with advanced sensors, cameras, and sometimes even cleaning or repair tools. They traverse through the pipes, capturing real-time data and high-definition images, which are then analyzed to detect issues like corrosion, blockages, cracks, and other forms of deterioration.

The robots' ability to perform inspections without human intervention in potentially hazardous conditions not only enhances safety but also significantly improves the efficiency and accuracy of the inspection process. For instance, in the oil and gas industry, where pipelines stretch for thousands of miles, these robots can cover vast distances and provide comprehensive diagnostics without the need for disruptive shutdowns.

The robots' ability to perform inspections without human intervention in potentially hazardous conditions not only enhances safety but also significantly improves the efficiency and accuracy of the inspection process. For instance, in the oil and gas industry, where pipelines stretch for thousands of miles, these robots can cover vast distances and provide comprehensive diagnostics without the need for disruptive shutdowns.

What robot types are available – and what are the benefits and limitations?

Robot car climbing shell plate

Pipe inspection robot climbing thickness shell plate storage tank oil

The diversity of pipe inspection robots reflects the varied needs of different industries and pipeline environments. Here are some common types and their respective advantages and limitations:

Crawler robots

These are designed to crawl through pipelines using wheels or tracks. They are highly maneuverable and can handle pipes with complex geometries and inclines. They often come equipped with multiple sensors for thorough inspections. However, their size can limit their use in smaller diameter pipes, and their weight can sometimes pose a challenge in certain environments.

Snake robots

Resembling the flexibility of a snake, these robots can navigate through very narrow and winding pipes. Their ability to bend and twist makes them ideal for inspecting pipes with numerous bends and tight corners. However, their complexity and the precision required for their operation can lead to higher costs and maintenance requirements.

A fun fact here: In some cases, pipe inspection robots have been inspired by nature. For example, the design of certain snake robots mimics the movement of biological snakes, enabling them to slither through complex pipe networks with ease.

Flying robots (drones)

In pipelines large enough to accommodate them, drones offer unparalleled speed and coverage. They are particularly useful for inspecting large storage tanks and wide-diameter pipelines from the inside. Their use is limited to larger spaces, and battery life can restrict their operational time, requiring frequent recharging or battery swaps.

Underwater robots

Designed for pipelines filled with liquids, these robots can swim through the flow, providing inspections without the need to drain the pipes. They are useful in water supply systems and sewage pipelines. Their operation can be affected by the flow speed and the type of liquid in the pipe. Maintenance in such environments can also be challenging.

Each of these robots brings a unique set of capabilities, allowing industries to select the most appropriate type based on their specific inspection needs.

What should you consider before integrating robots in this space?

Crawler robot

Remotely controlled robot checking the internal condition of pipes

Integrating robotic technology into pipe inspection processes involves several key considerations:

Pipeline environment

The type and condition of the pipeline, including its diameter, material, and the substances it carries, will influence the choice of robot.

Inspection goals

Determine whether the primary goal is to detect defects, measure wear and tear, clean, or even repair. Different robots are equipped with different tools and sensors tailored for these tasks.

Operational constraints

Consider the logistical aspects such as access points for the robots, potential obstacles within the pipeline, and the availability of power sources.

Cost and ROI

Evaluate the initial investment against the potential long-term benefits, such as reduced downtime, enhanced safety, and lower maintenance costs.

What is the market size?

The market for pipe inspection robots is experiencing robust growth, driven by the increasing demand for efficient and reliable pipeline maintenance. As of recent estimates, the total market for pipeline inspection robots is estimated to be around $3 billion USD in 2023 and is expected to reach $13 billion USD at a CAGR of 15% in 2033.

In particular, the oil and gas sector is a major contributor to this market, given the critical need for ensuring the integrity of long-distance pipelines. Additionally, urban infrastructure development and the aging of existing pipeline systems are propelling the demand for advanced inspection solutions.

What’s next?

You may be ready to take the next step towards including robots in your pipe inspection operations, but where do you start?

The HowToRobot platform connects buyers of automation with a variety of suppliers in a streamlined, easy-to-use environment.

Post your project on HowToRobot today for free, and begin receiving offers from vetted, relevant automation vendors from our supplier network.