Woodside, the largest Australian natural gas producer, has three top priorities at its processing facilities: safety, reliability, and efficiency – in that order.
Gas processing plants are complex, potentially hazardous sites, with an array of equipment that needs to be continuously monitored and inspected. Woodside has made proactive investments in Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, but has found it impractical and cost-prohibitive to cover every inch of their sprawling onshore plants with smart sensors. Wheeled robots are appropriate for limited inspection use cases, but they have difficulty operating on uneven terrain and move too slowly to be effective across large distances.
Woodside is still testing the agile mobile robot from Boston Dynamics. But the company believes that Spot has the potential to handle a diverse range of inspection tasks across its facilities – ultimately helping Woodside to improve safety, reliability and efficiency of its operations. Spot is one aspect of Woodside’s broader intelligent asset workstream, where the company is hoping predictive maintenance could significantly reduce its annual maintenance bill.
With safety a top priority at its plants, Woodside is taking a close look at how to use Spot to take on higher-risk tasks and keep employees as safe as possible. “Some activities are higher risk than others,” says Tim Byrne, a surveillance engineer at Woodside. “We’re always looking for ways to make people safer and eliminate risk.”
For instance, it would reduce risk and be more efficient if it were possible to use Spot for inspections in areas with high-voltage transformers. Similarly, Byrne anticipates that Spot could be sent in as a “first responder” during emergency situations, collecting visual information to help prepare human response teams. Also, Byrne says, Spot is an ideal fit for inspecting sites during periodic shutdowns.
“You can only observe the performance of some equipment when it’s going through that transition state from on to off,” Byrne explains. “When the plant’s running stable, it’s quite safe. When we shut down a plant, it’s dynamic. It’s still safe, but it’s a higher risk activity. So, making use of Spot to do some of the surveillance would be great.”
Mark Micire, the head of robotics at Woodside, says he joined the company partly because he considered its proposed use of Spot to be “leading edge,” and he wanted to be a part of that. “When I heard that Woodside was working with Boston Dynamics and had decided to deploy Spot robots, that really swayed my decision to come to Woodside,” he says.
For Woodside, Micire says, the most significant feature of Spot is the robot’s ability to navigate nearly any terrain. “The biggest value is Spot’s mobility,” he says. “The nature of its quadruped mobility is a huge benefit for the kinds of environments that we’re working in. Wheeled platforms can only really get us so far when we’re dealing with plants that have stairs and uneven terrain, so that’s a huge, huge value.” While tracks can improve robots’ stability, Micire notes, they perform poorly on surfaces such as gravel, and can quickly become fouled if they are exposed to moisture and dirt.
Other robotics platforms also struggle to simply keep up with the size of Woodside’s sites. “The speed with which the Spot can move, as opposed to the wheeled platforms, is much faster,” says Byrne. “One of the ways you make operations safer is by separating equipment out over a wide area. For an onshore plant, we’re spread out over a couple of kilometers, and our wheeled platforms are quite slow. So, for wheeled platforms to be effective, you need a lot more of them than you would with Spot. It’s not just about navigating terrain, but also just traversing from one part of the plant to the other.”
For Woodside, Spot demonstrated its potential during a 2020 site visit by Boston Dynamics. During that test, the company was impressed by both the ease with which Spot navigated their environment and by the user-friendliness of the platform. “I’m not a ‘video-game’ kind of person,” says Shreya Shree, a graduate surveillance engineer with Woodside. “When the Boston Dynamics team was here, it was easy to drive the robot all by myself, so I think it’s really user-friendly.”
Byrne acknowledges that he was something of a Boston Dynamics “fanboy,” even before the site visit. He says that Spot’s on-site performance lived up to the hype surrounding the robot’s famous viral videos. “When Woodside first started talking about robotics, we saw a video of Spot online, and I said, ‘that’s where we want to be,’” Byrne recalls. “Then, when the Boston Dynamics team came on-site with Spot, I was excited to see how easily it could go up rock piles, traverse split levels, and walk on concrete, asphalt, and gravel rock. It was actually quite impressive to see that.”
Spot did initially struggle to navigate one key feature of Woodside’s facilities – mesh metal stairs – but that limitation lasted only a few weeks. “To our delight, within a couple of months of the visit, Boston Dynamics was able to do a software update, and we were able to verify that it now allows Spot to deal with the grid mesh stairs that are pretty much prevalent all over our sites,” says Micire. “That is a capability that none of our other platforms have.”
Early on, Woodside and Boston Dynamics identified six potential applications for Spot: gauge reading, leak detection, noise anomaly detection, thermal inspection, gas detection, and remote inspection.
Currently, human operators have a set number of analog gauges to read and report on. As they make their rounds, human operators also look for water and steam leaks (which can degrade performance or result in risks to workers), inspecting the fittings and connectors between pipes that carry steam or liquids between various parts of the plant. Likewise, human workers keep an ear out for odd noises, use thermal cameras to inspect for potential hot spots, carry gas detectors with them, and manually inspect equipment when alarms go off. Woodside anticipates that Spot will be able to record and report all of this data using cameras, microphones or other peripherals, freeing up employees for other tasks.
Christopher Phillips, a Woodside production technician, says Spot will also help to cut down on the number of variables that arise as human workers make rounds on the facilities.
“Every 12 hours, we follow the same path through the plant, and we’re assessing situational awareness,” he says. “It’s important to communicate across shift changes and make sure you’re handing off critical information. Spot is going to capture things we may not notice or that we're not always around to see.”
Byrne stresses that the company isn’t using Spot to replace human workers. Rather, he says, officials want to use Spot to make the plant as safe as possible, free up those employees from rote, mundane chores and give them more time for tasks that require human skill and create value for the company.
“With the current economic climate, it’s all about operating safely and getting the most from our people and then freeing them up to do the higher-level activities,” Byrne says. “Releasing them from the lower-value, mundane activities is where I see Spot really coming to the forefront. So, it’s not about using Spot to replace people. It’s about using Spot to keep our people away from hazards and free our people up for the high-value activities that really drive up performance on-site.”
Byrne calls tasks like gauge reading “a good stepping stone,” but he is ultimately excited by slightly more complex use cases. For instance, employees currently verify that specific systems – such as valves or electrical equipment – have been isolated before another worker makes a repair. “In emergency situations, where access may not be safe for a human, the team could deploy Spot to verify the isolation.
Byrne compares Spot to a smartphone. When the smartphone debuted in 2007, he notes, most people did not anticipate that they would one day rely on the device for tasks as varied as mobile banking, managing their grocery lists, and booking hotel rooms. Similarly, he says, he expects that Woodside and other companies will continue uncovering revolutionary new uses for Spot well into the future.
“The smartphone resulted in a whole bunch of apps that we didn’t know we needed, and that wouldn't be possible without the tool,” Byrne says. “I think what Spot can bring to us is a new set of tools that will enable us to do things that we didn’t even think we could do before.”