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Oil pipeline robotics opportunity could transform industry

The FSWBot which has been designed and constructed by a team led by Forth, in Cumbria

A team led by engineering firm Forth has worked for the past two-and-a-half years on the creation of FSWBot, an innovative friction stir welding robotic crawler devised for internal repair and refurbishment of pipelines, and they are now looking for assistance to help bring the working prototype to the commercial stage.

The FSWBot is being developed to travel hundreds of miles down an oil pipeline to scan for any defects in the structure, and carry out subsequent repairs - all while oil continues to flow. The robot is controlled remotely by engineers at a safe distance from the pipeline.

This process will remove the need for divers to work on pipelines and for oil production to be halted, therefore saving significant time, money and, by removing humans from hazardous environments, potentially saving lives.

The FSWBot has innovative technology which allows the robot to ‘walk' to the exact point of defect, place a milling patch in place and then weld the problem area.

Forth has produced a concept model of the FSWBot and successfully demonstrated the prototype to a consortium of partners at its headquarters in Cumbria in July. The Innovate UK-backed project has also been supported by partners TWI, Joining 4.0 Innovation Centre (J4IC, a partnership between TWI and Lancaster University), Innvotek and London South Bank University (LSBU).

Now that the pilot system has been demonstrated successfully, Forth is seeking further partners for full commercial deployment of the equipment.

Chris Downham, programme manager at Forth, said: "An exciting opportunity to bring such a pioneering piece of kit to the commercial stage now exists, and we're keen to hear from anyone who may be interested in helping us get to the final stage.

"Our team has worked tirelessly to design and construct the prototype, and we are extremely proud of how well the new technology works.

"In order to improve on the working prototype and assist with the commissioning process, we would like to work with partners who would be interested in helping develop such innovative technology.

"This technology is a world-first piece of equipment and it will have a major, positive impact on the oil and gas industry, ensuring oil pipeline repairs are carried out more safely, quicker and without restricting production.

"It is a great opportunity for partners to be involved in something which will change the way the industry works across the world."

The FSWBot integrates several state-of-the-art technologies, including friction stir welding, milling, patch deployment and ultrasonic NDT, onto a robotic system which can be deployed to conduct repairs on pipelines without the need for the pipeline to be closed down for the duration of the repair.

Friction stir welding is a solid state welding process which generates enough frictional heat to soften or plasticise the metal without melting it, allowing metal components to be forged at the joint line.

The FSWBot will be a five or six-segment PIG type which will be inserted at the production end of the pipeline and will flow with the oil to a pre-designated area, where it will stop and perform the repair work.

One segment will carry the FSW machine and a steel patch dispenser, with other segments carrying the navigation, control system, communications, NDT and power storage/generation payloads.

An FSWBot2 is also under consideration for multipurpose repairs and inspections. This innovation would be a very different robot but would build on the learning from the initial development. It would be able to inspect and repair fatigue and corrosion in offshore assets as well as other subsea infrastructure and applications in other industries. It will be able to climb and walk and will be deployed from a system which has the ability to lock onto a structure.