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Undersea robots are commonly used in the energy industry to maintain equipment in deep waters, where extreme pressures stop humans from venturing.

Now a robot can help tackle minor hazards on the surface or on land before they grow more serious, without needing additional protection like a human would. Called Sensabot, it is waterproof and dustproof and can work on platforms in stormy seas or in oil and gas fields in remote, hostile environments. It can go for up to six months at a time without the need for servicing.

Oil and gas operations are usually safe enough for technicians in protective gear to carry out inspection and maintenance tasks. But to improve safety where potential hazards exist, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh, USA, worked with Shell engineers to develop Sensabot, for use in Kazakhstan by the joint venture North Caspian Operating Company.

A close-up view

Sensabot is a multi-talented robot packed with sensors and cameras. It can drive through gravel, mud, slush and snow and can even climb vertical surfaces using rails on the outside of process modules. It can travel up to three kilometres with at least four hours’ operating time between charges.

An operator sitting in a control centre out of harm’s way guides Sensabot over a wi-fi or mobile network. Progress is monitored via high-definition video as it inspects pipes and valves in complex installations. It gathers data about temperature, noise and vibrations, and sniffs for any toxic and flammable gases that might be present.  

An additional advantage is that operators can also draw on a range of experts around the world using its remote connection, helping to assess Sensabot’s findings.