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    Meet Petrobot, the Machine Big Oil Built to Replace Tank Inspectors

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Image: Flickr

    Everyone knows oil companies have more money than God. Those deep, viscous pockets, combined with a newfangled drive to be as efficient as possible—that oil's peaking, after all, and the party's thinning out—means it was only a matter of time before Big Oil built a robot to do its dirty work. It was equally as inevitable, I suppose, that they would name it Petrobot. 

    Petrobot is a forthcoming "robot snake arm" or "crawler" destined to spend its days in huge vats of oil. The Petrobot project is helmed by Shell and partially funded by the European Union, and 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."

    Right now, regular old mortal people have to inspect those oil tanks, and it sounds like nasty work. There's all the residual gunk, the chemical fumes, and the hours spent trapped in a giant toxic cannister. Petrobot would gladly tackle the job, though, because oil already runs in his blood. 

    The oil companies would rather see Petrobot do the job, too, but it's not to make their employee's lives more pleasant. It's because inspecting an oil container by hand is expensive and time-consuming, and robots could do it faster and cheaper, naturally. 

    The Petrobot press release, which insistantly refers to PETROBOT in all caps, explains further: "to ensure inspectors' safety, oil, gas and petrochemical plants have to shut down during inspection operations." Shutting down operations, of course, costs the Shells a fair amount of money. Then, "vessels have to be decoupled from live sections of the plant; 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."

    That's a lot of time and labor. Bring in Petrobot instead, and you don't even have to empty out the can. Petrobot can dive in and check the place out pronto. 

    "When a pressure vessel is taken out of service, a robot (in the shape of a snake arm or a crawler) will enter it via a manhole or a nozzle; the robot will then scan along the vessel wall for damages," Shell explains. "A robot will enter the storage tank while the product (petrol or intermediate products) stays in place; the robot will then scan over the tank bottom for damages."

    Thanks, Petrobot. 

    And watch out, oil container inspectors of the world; robots are coming for your jobs, too.