Robots are everywhere now. In the automotive industry, robotic arms are ideal for repetitive jobs that need precision, such as welding or fitting car windshields. The medical world is also going robotic. Complex procedures are carried out using robotic surgeons. Advanced prosthetics enable amputees to walk and run again. At the furthest frontier of all – space –, we have seen robots land on comets and explore the surface of Mars.

Shell uses robotic systems throughout its businesses for a wide range of operations and maintenance tasks. Shell is tackling the challenge of oil and gas assets becoming more complex operationally and health, safety, security and environmental standards that apply in operations becoming more stringent. Robotics addresses the mobility element of the challenge, reducing safety exposure for our people, our contractors and suppliers, and automating data collection for advanced analytics tools to provide proactive leak and corrosion detection.

Technical advances in recent years have made robotic systems more cost-effective. Internet of Things brings internet connectivity to everyday objects and devices, essentially allowing robots to become mobile sensors collecting data and training machine learning models. Increased processing power, better batteries and improved sensor technologies have all had roles in this trend. Today, robotics is a fast-moving field with exciting developments linked to the wider trends in digitalisation.

Robotics Across Shell

On land


Facilitating leak detection and emission control

Digital technologies offer new options for detecting and quantifying emissions in oil and gas operations. Emission sources are being targeted through a range of innovative technologies, such as gas imaging cameras, sniffer robots and satellite- and drone-mounted sensors.

Robots assist Shell in continuous methane emission detection to control fugitive emissions. By using robots to investigate our facilities and sniff out methane so we can help prevent them from escaping.


The Sensabot system was designed to be the industry’s first site-resident, mobile, explosion-safe robot. It could work in remote or unmanned oil and gas facilities for up to six months without maintenance. At such locations, it could help to reduce the downtime of assets by providing instant insights into safety status and by enabling faster restarts.

To make the Sensabot concept available at a lower cost, the ExR-1 was commercially developed. It drives autonomous gas detection rounds, day & night, and can sniff out small leaks far earlier than a fixed gas detector would. This will make it easier to find and stop leaks at an early stage and, so, reduce emissions as per Shell’s commitment to the climate change agreements.

Combining robotics with machine vision will enhance existing integrity monitoring systems and enable better monitoring of fugitive emissions. The robots will collect still images, videos and audio data every day and store them in the cloud. Machine vision algorithms are being trained to recognise hydrocarbon leak plumes in the infrared camera images and to alert operators of a change. This has the potential to move from reactive leak detection and to the proactive leak avoidance. Machine vision algorithms will be trained to recognise hydrocarbon leak plumes in the infrared camera images.

Further, machine learning diagnostics could be developed to detect changes and prediction of emerging issues, such as corrosion, excessive vibration, natural phenomena (sand, snow, vegetation, animals, etc.), insulation damage, etc. that could eventually result in a leak.

Efficient replication, where the models developed and the lessons learned in one place are shared across all operations and locations, will help to make a strong business case for these robotic systems.

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In the water

Autonomous Underwater vehicle (AUVs)


Back in the 1970s, human divers performed dangerous underwater maintenance and construction work. As the industry moved to deeper waters, more than 150 metres from the surface, humans could no longer deal with the conditions, and remotely operated vehicles – ROVs – became the norm. Today we build and operate subsea infrastructure nearly 3 kilometres underwater.

Although this aspect of our industry is now relatively mature, there are still advances to be made: for instance, removing tethers and making ROVs autonomous and able to operate for long periods without human interaction. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are used in surveillance/inspection of the seabed and subsea equipment, such as pipelines, risers, wells, pumps, etc.

AUVs are deployed globally in both shallow-water operations, such as the North Sea, as well as Deepwater operations in the Gulf of Mexico and in Brazil. ROV/AUVs are enabling technologies in this context as no person would be able to dive multiple kilometres under water and execute tasks similar to those done in surface facilities, such as valve-operation, coupling of equipment, inspection/maintenance/repairs, etc.

Over the years, as ROVs have had their capabilities extended to enable them to handle more complex operations, and they have become indispensable tools for conducting safe activities in deep water. Growing capabilities, such as machine vision, allow Shell to improve operations of subsea equipment in increasingly complex circumstances, such as deeper water and more complex seabed equipment. Automation makes it possible to collect more data with higher frequency. We use this data to improve our models enabling better insight. For example, AUVs can detect issues, such as a dropped anchor on a pipeline or natural earth movements.

Marine Robotics are enabling Shell to change the concept of operations for all offshore facilities, including traditional oil and gas as well as offshore wind and carbon capture and storage facilities. Driving more competitive ways of working, with improved safety performance and environmental stewardship.


At present, most inspection vehicles in deepwater rely on operators to control them and oversee the inspection, manually checking the video feed. FlatFish is an autonomous underwater vehicle that performs close inspections of pipelines and structures in order to visualise and allow better understanding of anomalies. High-resolution 3D and precision optics with natural colours allow the remote operator to identify even very small dents. FlatFish can eliminate the need for support vessels and can significantly reduce the costs of subsea inspections and data, while reducing the CO2 footprint from our operations. The project, which was developed in partnership with SENAI CIMATEC, has entered the commercialisation phase. After the launch of a joint research and development venture in March 2018, Shell Brasil reached a commercial agreement with SAIPEM to lead all further commercialisation work.

In the air

Drone inspection

Drones are well established across Shell’s global portfolio as a way of collecting inspection data. Traditionally, drones have been used as a specialty tool to complete an explicit task, but a shift is now occurring where drones are becoming embedded into operations as a preferred way of working. They offer a cost effective and safe way to rapidly gather imagery of out of reach spaces and large geographic areas.

For example, at Shell’s Deer Park refinery, the tank farm is inspected by drones to collect data as opposed to inspectors physically visiting the tanks. The surveillance robotics team is looking to build upon these types of initiatives by doing this kind of repetitive data collection activity across wide areas of a facility.

At Shell’s Pennsylvania Chemicals facility, drones are used to take construction progress snapshots on, producing dimensionally accurate 3D models from aerial imagery, covering the entire 400 acres footprint of the construction site.

Shell’s asset-owned drone programme supports creating business efficiencies, optimising business processes and adhering to safety policies. Multiple Shell locations own and operate drones themselves ensuring 24/7 access to the tool and the benefits it offers.

Historically, there have been some unique challenges to operationalising drones in our assets. Typically, regulations generally require drones to stay within range of the pilot’s vision, limiting their geographic reach and operational scope.

Shell has been a pioneer in operating drones beyond visual line of site (BVLOS) which brings up unique regulatory challenges. Shell has executed successful acquired BVLOS permits in Australia and the USA to execute successful commercial proof of concept deployments. This foundational work is providing critical evidence for the regulators and industry on how BVLOS drones can be used to safely support remote operations. Shell continues to drive innovation in the BVLOS space with a variety of technology partners as we believe that BVLOS permits are key to expanding drone use outside of traditional use cases.

Unmanned aerial systems represent a robust asset inspection and aerial surveillance solution, but machine vision and advanced analytics will unlock their full value.

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