Deploying sensor-technology ‘inspection and repair’ robots in live gas distribution mains
05 December 2017
Installing inspection robot into launch tube opening in London field trial
A winning project from last year’s Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards last year has won big at the UK Business Awards 2017. UK gas network company Scotia Gas Networks (SGN), and its Network Innovation Competition (NIC) Robotics Innovation Project, was awarded both the Utilities Award and the Innovation B2C Award after competing against major banks, telecoms companies and retailers. The event took place on 22 November at London’s Wembley Stadium.
RPS provided the technical services consultancy to SGN and ULC Robotics, to support this project in developing robotic platforms and solutions for the gas utility industry. The project pioneered the deployment of sensor technology inspection and repair robots in live gas distribution mains, which had never been attempted before.
It involved the design, manufacture and field-testing of the new robots, which were successfully tested in live gas mains in London in November 2015. The project was awarded the ‘Technical Innovation of the Year Award’ at the Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards 2016.
The innovative technology measures wall thickness, stress and strain in pipelines and will allow gas utilities to extend the life of cast iron pipeline infrastructure. Its use will allow pipeline inspection and joint repair operations to take place with minimal disruption to customers, with fewer traffic restrictions, lower road reinstatement costs and no supply restrictions for gas customers.
The UK Business Awards are designed to recognise and celebrate exceptional business performance. Awards were presented across a wide range of categories including Financial Services, Retail, Utilities, Business Change or Transformation, Customer Centric Organisation, Disruptive Business Model, Innovation, Inspirational Leader and Best Place to Work.
Overview of the project
This project comprised the design, manufacture and field testing of new inspection and repair robots. The breakthrough robotic systems were developed to allow gas utilities to identify mains condition and extend the life of large diameter cast iron pipeline infrastructure.
RPS was appointed in 2014 to provide technical services to SGN, to support an industry-leading innovation project developing robotic platforms and solutions for the gas industry in partnership with ULC Robotics, a leading robotics manufacturing and utilities services company based in New York. The project, mostly funded by the Energy Regulator Ofgem, was awarded to SGN as part of the Network Innovation Competition (NIC) to encourage innovation in gas networks.
The project was successfully completed in late 2015. Project outcomes, which include the use of innovative sensor and analysis technology, have the potential to transform the way the gas industry maintains its distribution assets.
The use of robotics technology to inspect and repair live gas mains will lead to significant benefits to customers and the environment. These include minimisation of disruptive roadworks, reduction in repair costs and third party damage, improved risk management of metallic mains, reduction in leakage from the gas distribution system and the extension of the asset lifetime.
There will be a greatly reduced carbon footprint in asset management of metallic gas networks globally when this advance is implemented internationally. In the UK alone the potential cost savings are highly substantial.
Originality and ingenuity
To our knowledge, the use of sensor technology inspection and repair robots in live gas pipelines has never been attempted before. Assessing the integrity of live cast iron mains is not ‘business as usual.’ A customised robot was developed to assess mains condition.
The project was split into three elements in a logical sequence of robotic development, from initial research and conceptual design (early 2014), through the development of repair modules (late 2014), to manufacture, inspection and field trials (late 2015).
The design had to be scalable to allow the robot to cover the broad range of diameters across tiers 2 and 3 (from 12” to 48”). The robot required maximum manoeuvrability to provide flexibility for both repair and sensing operations. It was decided early on that two separate robots were required – an inspection robot (CIRRIS XI) and a repair robot (CIRRIS XR).
RPS identified the key criteria that defined the development of the robot. These included controlled testing of the prototype and final design. Clear targets for practical application, functionality and safe operation were set.
The robots were equipped with sensors to provide key information for digital evaluation of pipe wall thickness, degree of graphitic corrosion, stress and strain. The data obtained is analysed using the latest data analytics tools.
Using mathematical ‘numerical theory’, RPS showed how this new data can be used to alter the Mains Condition Factor in the UK Main Risk Prioritisation System (MRPS), which identifies capital expenditure requirements to replace existing gas pipelines which are prone to failure.
RPS carried out finite element analysis to ascertain whether pipelines of a certain age and degree of corrosion were structurally capable of withstanding the additional loads imposed by the robotic system.
Adherence to budget, quality and programme
This SGN project was approved and funded by Ofgem and therefore adherence to project directions from the regulator was essential. Ofgem monitored quality assurance, adherence to project programme and budget. Overall project management was provided by an SGN Project Manager who reported to the SGN Project Steering Group.
The overall project programme identified key milestones in the project progression against which progress and cost was regularly monitored. There were weekly conference calls between SGN, ULC and RPS to review all project parameters.
RPS’s role was design, technical assurance and reporting to SGN who in turn reported to the Regulator Ofgem. Project partners ULC, RPS and SGN each had a project manager who managed their own programme, quality of deliverables and costs against budgets over the two year period. Elements 1, 2 and 3 were all delivered on time and within the project control budget.
Successful Delivery Reward Criteria (SDRC) were identified in the SGN project specification which was approved by Ofgem and had to be adhered to regarding quality and delivered outcomes.
One of many roles RPS had on the project was to assess design proposals and specifications from specialist suppliers and to report in a timely fashion on any gap analysis from stated programme requirements.
In terms of programme, the project used innovative 3D printing technologies which facilitated the creation of engineering parts in just hours. In November 2015, both the inspection and repair module robots were successfully tested inside live gas mains on two different test sites in London.
Potential benefits to economy
The potential for these new robotic systems to reduce the risk of pipeline failure will lead to greater safety, savings for utilities and customers, better-informed asset management approach, smarter gas networks and extension of asset life. There are also very significant savings in disruption to road users, traffic management, road reinstatement and carbon footprint.
This project has demonstrated for the first time that electronic robots with highly sensitive sensor technology can operate safely in live gas pipelines. The annual savings resulting from the full development of this technology has the potential to be highly significant. Furthermore, it has the potential for extension of the technology on a global basis to a range of energy and other utilities.
In urban environments, the reduced disruption will also improve the quality of life and lead towards low carbon energy systems. It will also assist the future ‘smart city’ ambition to use automated sensor technology in a whole range of urban settings to include traffic management, smart metering of utilities and smarter travel.
This project which used 3D modelling to assist in demonstrating the advantages of robots to repair and maintain gas pipelines, has led to significant upskilling of RPS Irish engineers. This will enable us to apply robotic and sensor technology to our work on pipeline asset management in Ireland across a range of sectors including gas, water, pharma and other process industries.
Significance as a benchmark of technology
The project involved the development of two unique, innovative systems, the CIRRIS XI inspection robot and the CIRRIS XR repair robot. Their use will allow pipe inspection and joint repair operations to take place with minimal disruption to customers, with particular benefits being realised in reduced excavation requirements, fewer traffic restrictions and no gas flow restrictions required.
The current key drivers for gas pipeline asset intervention are leakage, risk management and third party damage. The SGN Robotics Project was designed to reduce these risks using in-pipe robotics systems for inspection and repair.
The tangible deliverables from the robots and tools developed in this project are reduction in pipeline repair and remediation costs, reduction in third party damage, improved risk management and safety, and reduced leakage from gas networks.
The robots developed have been rigorously tested by ULC under SGN and RPS supervision to ensure adherence to the project requirements. The field testing phase was verified by RPS using technical assurance models and network information supplied by ULC and SGN.
RPS conducted a study of the electrical safety requirements of the systems to ensure that they could be safely used in a live gas environment. These robots, the sensor technologies applied and the analytical tools developed are a quantum leap forward in the condition assessment of cast iron pipelines, and pipeline integrity data that, before now, network operators were unable to obtain.
When deployed across the gas and other industries, this toolkit will launch a new generation of technologies with ‘sensing capabilities’ with wide application to pipelines serving a full range of utility operations.
PJ Rudden BE CEng, FIEI, FICE, FCIWM is gas director with RPS Group and former president of Engineers Ireland