On September 2013, The European Commission, together with a consortium of ten European companies led by Shell, launched the PETROBOT project, which aims to develop robots which can replace humans in inspections of pressure vessels and storage tanks widely used in the oil, gas and petrochemical industry.

So far, to ensure inspectors’ safety, oil, gas and petrochemical plants have to shut down during inspection operations: vessels have to be decoupled from live sections of the plant (closing a valve is not sufficient); then vessels are extensively cleaned to remove all products that can emit flammable or toxic gases; scaffolding is then erected in larger vessels, so that inspectors can access all necessary areas. After inspection (which often lasts for a few hours) all this work is done in reverse. This long and costly procedure could soon be reduced thanks to robotic technology, thus reducing the exposure of personnel to potentially hazardous conditions, saving the industry time and resources, as well as opening up new markets for the European robotics industry and allowing for the creation of new jobs in robotics manufacturing and maintenance.

PETROBOT will involve partners from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and Germany over a 3-year period. The EU will contribute €3.7 million to the €6.2 million project.

The PETROBOT project mobilises the complete value chain, including robot and inspection technology providers, inspection service companies and end-users. The inspection robots will be tested in the installations of the end-user consortium members. Special project activities aim at preparing the future user community to maximize the uptake of the new technology. These new activities could create new types of jobs and open new markets. As a technology area, it may become a strong export product for the EU, by exporting the robotic hardware solutions or complete robot-inspection services. Robots, as well as the inspection tools they carry, would need to be developed and produced in large numbers; robot-inspection services would need to become available. If the project is successful, it will stimulate innovation to address the more challenging situations.