Go by any oil refinery and you'll see stacks at the top of which small flames burn off the waste gas left over from converting crude oil into more useful materials. Such stacks are relatively simple structures, but inspecting them is anything but. It's so costly and time consuming that GE is looking at ways to use drones to inspect fire stacks and other components in real time without the need to shut down production.
Though the technology behind burning off waste gas is simple, inspecting the stacks is slow and dangerous. But it's work that must be done – not only because industry regulations require it on a regular basis, but because a crack in a stack pipe can turn it into a blowtorch that can cost many lives and millions in property damage.
According to GE, the usual way to inspect a refinery is to shut down at least part of the plant, letting the equipment cool, and sending in inspectors. It's a job that can take days and can often put a plant out of commission for weeks. Needless to say, finding a way to get around this would be very popular with engineers.
This is why a team led by John Spirtos, managing director of New Business Creations at GE Ventures, is looking at ways to get drones to do the dirty work. They contend that sending in airborne drones and crawling robots to carry out stack inspections would be a way of keeping a closer eye on the works over a longer time frame without having to shut down the plant so often or for so long.
The idea is that the robotic inspectors would be equipped with special sensors, including thermal imagers, that would allow them to send back telemetry and video feeds that could be fed through inspection algorithms to identify worn or damaged equipment. Meanwhile, the human inspectors can either be taking supplementary readings, consulting with experts, or sitting back comfortably and guiding the drones. Fixed sensors can provide another set of "eyes" that are on the job all the time.
GE says that the data can also be used to create 3D models or to track problems through time using Predix, GE's software platform for the Industrial Internet. Additionally, using such a digital system would cut inspection times by half. GE stresses that the technology is still in the pilot phase, but that the team has inspected five industrial facilities and say the results are encouraging.
"We can have multiple people look at the same asset at the same time," says Spirtos. "You can also interact remotely with the inspection as it takes place. You can freeze the inspection video while it is being taken, move backwards in time, move forward to the current inspection, annotate the images of the inspection and send them to other experts if something is identified as needing further attention."
The video below discusses the GE plan for using drones and robots to inspect plants.
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