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SmartTouch: Towards Autonomous Subsea Robotics for Underwater Pipeline Inspection

Status: AWARD END DATE: 10/31/2020


One of the fundamental building blocks of the subsea oil and gas industry are the thousands of miles of pipelines installed across the seabed, such as in the Gulf of Mexico. The pipelines serve to carry valuable fluids from subterranean reservoirs to the topside, and thus must be able to withstand years of high pressure, high temperature conditions. While subsea pipelines may be engineered to withstand such harsh conditions, unexpected events can prematurely cause failure of pipeline structures, including bolted flanges, welding, etc.

Such events are ideally mitigated by timely maintenance and inspection of subsea pipeline structures. However, such routine actions can be excessively costly and when divers are involved, the issue of safety becomes a major consideration. Furthermore, depending on the skill and experience of human operators, certain critically damaged components may be missed. Failures that occur from damages that were overlooked by inspection routines can have catastrophic consequences, leading to hundreds of fatalities and billions of dollars of damage over the past two decades.

The events have inspired the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to issue a recent public report highlighting the need for better detection of damage in subsea infrastructure, especially for bolted structures. Thus, the goal of this project is to develop transformative robotic and SmartTouch sensing technology, that will lead to a time-efficient and cost-effective system for underwater pipeline inspection.

To achieve the research objective, we will investigate the following tasks:

  1. Develop SmartTouch sensing for pipeline structure inspection
  2. Design dexterous robotic manipulator for remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to deliver SmartTouch sensors to complex pipeline structures
  3. Develop force feedback sensing and grasping control for manipulator
  4. After integration of key components, conduct comprehensive testing

The tool integrates state-of-the-art robotic manipulator controls for ROV and the latest structural health monitoring and inspection methods to automate pipeline inspection, including loosened connectors and deformed pipelines inspection. With the developed technology of pipeline structures will be safer, more economical, and more accurate. Completion of the proposed solution will open the doors to applications for inspection of other kinds of subsea structures. With proper implementation, the rate of subsea pipeline failure and related accidents will decrease, and subsea operations will be free to expand at faster rate than before.