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Repair robot swims through oil pipelines and welds cracks — without exploding

We’re not exactly breaking news when we say that oil pipelines are big business. A potential shutdown of an oil pipeline can cost millions of dollars per day. That’s a problem since these pipelines, which crisscross hundreds of thousands of miles across the globe, need inspecting from time to time. With enormous quantities of oil flowing through them on a constant basis, they could easily develop faults such as cracks. These need fixing — and, ideally, fixing without having to shut the pipeline down to do it.

The answer? According to U.K.-based company Forth Engineering, it’s a job for robots. And a very specific type of robot to boot. As part of an ongoing project, the company has developed a robot called FSWBot, short for Friction Stir Welding Robotic Crawler. As its name suggests, the intrepid FSWBot crawls along lengths of pipe — like Bishop the android in the movie Aliens — on the lookout for trouble.

“It’s an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) that can travel along the pipeline carrying an inspection camera system that’s able to look at the pipeline and spot defects,” Martin Lewis, director at Forth Engineering, told Digital Trends. “Then it can apply a tool to mill out any defects it finds, and then apply another tool to friction stir weld another patch back in to repair the pipeline. All of this takes place while the pipeline is still active, meaning that there’s no need to shut it down.”

To make that clear: The robot crawls along a pipe while submerged in oil, dispenses a steel patch, and then welds it on — all while oil continues to flow around it at its normal rate.

“It does beggar belief that you can friction stir weld in oil,” Lewis continued. “It goes against everything you would think is possible. But in this case, extensive tests have been carried out to prove it can be done. Before this project even really got going, we knew that the technology worked and that this is something we could do. Everything else — the robotics, the artificial intelligence — all followed on from there.”

The robot consists of five or six joined segments, each of which carries out tasks like navigation, control, communications, non-destructive testing, and, of course, the welding and patch dispensing. Alongside Forth, other partners on the project include The Welding Institute, Joining 4.0 Innovation Center, Innvotek, and London South Bank University.

The project is due for completion in January 2021. “By then, we’ll have a working prototype which we can then look to commercialize,” Lewis said.

Alongside the oil industry, he said that the team had fielded inquiries from the water, waste, recycling, and renewables industries.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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