In 2020 bp, an integrated global energy business with over 70,000 employees, set out to reach net-zero emissions by the year 2050, while simultaneously boosting employee safety and operational efficiency.
To get there, one of bp’s safety objectives is to find more ways to remove employees from potentially hazardous situations and environments. Though the company operates its facilities with a strong focus on safety, the work still has inherent risks. For example, since production sites are remote—in hard-to-reach locations like the middle of the ocean or desert—there is risk in transporting employees back and forth. Additionally, operating the sites can require sending people into potentially hazardous environments, such as elevated or enclosed spaces, or exposing people to high or low temperatures.
The physically demanding environments in these sites can make even simple, day-to-day tasks like recording observations more labor intensive—taking up time that experienced specialists could use to perform more complex and high-impact activities.
In order to turn their net zero ambition into action, bp recently announced a new strategy to pivot from an international oil and gas company to an integrated energy company focused on delivering solutions for customers. A big part of this strategy revolves around driving digital transformation and innovation.
“There are thousands of pounds of pressurized combustible material out there. High-pressure oil and gas can create risks for people working in close proximity. If we could have a robot with the proper sensors out there, we’d much rather do that.”
- Adam Ballard, Facilities Technology Manager, bp
bp’s innovation and engineering team is responsible for implementing and scaling new digital technologies like sensors, algorithms, and other advanced tools in order to enable new ways to engage with customers, create efficiencies and support new businesses. Boston Dynamics’ Spot plays right into this team’s plans.
Facilities technology manager Adam Ballard says that one way to drive digital transformation on bp’s sites is to deploy robots for the inspection of its remote facilities. In this application, the robots will do the work of people by performing tasks like scanning for abnormalities, tracking corrosion, or checking gauges.
“I see robots as being the eyes, ears, nose, and other senses at our sites,” Ballard says. “It's about being able to use sensors to have that real-time understanding, and to get the context of the facility for someone such as an office-based employee that's trying to help troubleshoot a job or a piece of equipment—while minimizing the exposure of people to these potentially dangerous environments.”
This use of Spot will help bp reach one of its key goals: improving employee safety by keeping people away from potentially hazardous work environments. “There are thousands of pounds of pressurized combustible material out there,” Ballard says. “High-pressure oil and gas can create risks for people working in close proximity. If we could have a robot with the proper sensors out there, we’d much rather do that.”
Improving safety isn’t the only thing Spot can do for bp. When these robots are out on remote sites, they can improve operational efficiency by gathering larger data sets on how equipment on these sites perform. As Yasser Bangash, senior facilities engineer on the innovation and engineering team explains, “If you send a human out, they can look at two or three things at a time. A robot like Spot can have several different sensors or cameras on it, and process all that information at the same time.” Meanwhile, the operators back in a secure location can focus on applying judgment to the information in order to make smart decisions rather than data collection.
The bp team also believes that Spot will help the company reduce its carbon footprint. “Using a robot like Spot could help us reduce our carbon footprint by utilizing sensor packages such as methane emission-sensing cameras and audio sensors which could allow Spot to identify and quantify leaks. Allowing Spot to be the eyes and ears of our technical specialists would mean fewer trips offshore and a reduction of emissions from transportation.”
The practical steps to innovation
The innovation team understands that implementing technologies like robots is an extremely complex and delicate task, especially in a global company like bp. That’s why they have been taking a practical approach to scaling robotic solutions like Spot—one that began more than a year before the company even considered sending a robot to an operational facility.
As Bangash explains, the first step was to perform a proof of concept (POC) to verify that Spot could move reliably in an industrial environment. This test was performed at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) facility, which contains props and features that mimic a typical production site.
At TEEX, the innovation and engineering team ran a number of use cases. They tested Spot on gravel pads and ramps, narrow passages, and confined spaces, as well as grated platforms, which usually present challenges for a robot’s perception system. “The intent,” Bangash says, “was to test the mobility, and to test the autonomous capabilities of the robot.”
Testing was successful and Spot was able to move reliably in almost every scenario. Though bp initially found that Spot was less reliable on the grated stairs—since they were industrial-grade and a novel surface for the robot’s perception system—Boston Dynamics worked directly with the team and quickly closed the gap in functionality. Boston Dynamics also worked with bp to engage with vendors who could provide sensor payloads for their specific applications, such as a methane sensor that shuts Spot down in environments where gas levels present a high risk.
Satisfied with the performance of Spot, the team brought the robot to bp’s Whiting refinery near Chicago for another trial. During this week-long deployment, they tested the robot’s mobility in a live onshore environment. With the updates from Boston Dynamics, Spot’s performance improved and the bp team gained the confidence to bring Spot offshore.
Moving to a live offshore rig
“Based on these two trials,” says Bangash, “we gained the comfort level to take the next step, which will be deploying the robot on one of our offshore facilities for an extended period of time.”
The innovation and engineering team sees this stage as an opportunity to progress the implementation and explore the ways that bp’s employees interact with the robots in their day-to-day work.
“A big piece of implementing this technology is setting the right mindset,” says Ballard. “We chose to do an extended trial of at least three months to take the novelty away. We want to get our operators—the people whose jobs Spot can augment—thinking about the reality of using it. We have to get to a place where the robot is less like a toy and more like a tool.”
Trevor Smith, facilities technology team lead, says that this step will also help bp learn how to be robot owners, and determine how to customize Spot for their particular use cases. “We're getting the robot with a base set of capabilities. We know how to use it, and how to modify it, but we’re learning how to tune it to our operations.”
With its careful approach to implementation, bp has positioned itself well to use robots like Spot for new applications in the future. In fact, the company is exploring the use of robots with LIDAR sensor payloads for generating 3D models, or digital twins, that enable employees to virtually walk through and examine a facility from a safe remote location.
As Ballard explains, the company’s plan involves developing the robots’ programmed capabilities so that they have a practical understanding of the site, and not only gathering data but also analyzing what that data means, and potentially taking action, if necessary.
“It’s about getting Spot to have that experience in its head,” he says. “It needs to be able to look, listen, smell, and scan to determine how the plant is doing. Once integrated with our facility, Spot will need to have analytical reasoning so it can understand what information is within normal operating limits and what is not. In the near future, we see robots like Spot as mobile inspectors that can tell us just about everything we need to know about the condition of a facility.”
This would not only keep people away from potential harm, he says, but also give them better information and more time to act on that information. “It’s not about reducing people,” he concludes. “It's more about utilizing people's strengths, and augmenting their experience and judgment, to make their work more data-driven to accomplish our goals.”