Published on 11-Jul-2023

Crawling Robots Plod Ahead in Oil and Gas Asset Inspections

Crawling Robots Plod Ahead in Oil and Gas Asset Inspections

Thanks to richer data and more sophisticated ultrasonic sensors, robots are getting better at mimicking human movements, according to Gecko Robotics, Inc. For instance, the Pittsburgh-based company is using crawling robots to inspect online pipeline assets for clients – and mitigating a safety risk for human workers.

Rigzone recently caught up with Gecko’s Troy Demmer to discuss the use of crawling robots. The company’s chief operating officer, Demmer addressed the technology’s advantages, its limitations, misconceptions about robots in plant-based inspections, and more. Read on for his insights.

Rigzone: We commonly hear the term “digitalization” across industries, including oil and gas. What’s your best brief definition of what digitalization is as it relates to oil and gas, and where do robots fit into the picture?

Troy Demmer: For our team at Gecko Robotics, digitization means taking full operational advantage of both the data that already exists within each plant and the new datasets that are emerging from the use of robotics and sensors. The key to using the data collected by robots properly is centralizing the data into a structure and format that can easily be analyzed by modern powerful algorithms. 

Robots come into play because they allow for the collection of datasets that were previously painstaking to achieve due to either the dangerous nature of the environment or the sheer scale of the equipment. Data that was previously collected manually was not consistent over time in terms of accuracy and location. The strength of robots is to do something over and over again with precision.

Rigzone: Which types of oil and gas facilities commonly rely on robots for inspection and maintenance?

Demmer: Whilst all types of industries can take advantage of using robotics within inspections and maintenance, it is not something that is an everyday practice in many industries yet. Yes, some have been quicker at adopting robotics – for instance, oil and gas firms have been using this technology for over 25 years – but the adoption has been slower in some industries due to perceived barriers to installation.

Installation and implementation of robotics technology are often seen as a complex process that requires a hefty investment in time and effort for a plant to stand up, but realistically robotic inspections can easily be added to a plant’s day-to-day operations by partnering with the right team with the right equipment. We want to drive the idea of “robotics as a service,” which would not only include the actual technology, but also the teams and expertise needed to use this technology correctly through outsourcing.

A typical scenario to get started with robotics is to “demo” the solution on a well-solved problem within the plant. By the nature of ultrasonic testing, the plant can choose an asset that can be inspected while on-stream, such as the externals of a tank or piping run. Choosing an asset that has a traditional inspection history is a perfect match to see the immense value provided by the rich datasets being collected by robots. From there the gears start turning at the plant and more and more use cases emerge.

Rigzone: Please explain what using robots to crawl and inspect online oil and gas assets entails.

Demmer: This basically refers to non-intrusive inspections for high-pressure vessels. This particular type of inspection calls for periodic internal inspections that require taking the equipment off-line. This costs the customer five to six figures each time. In certain situations, a thorough robotic inspection can be done in lieu of an internal inspection. What this means is that you are not altering the state of the asset itself whilst it’s online – for instance, not emptying tanks, not changing the temps, etc.

They can do inspections whilst these assets are online. It saves money, time, and all-around is safer. 

Rigzone: What are the key advantages here, particularly in terms of worker safety?

Demmer: It simply avoids putting the worker in a dangerous situation, whether from risks associated with working at elevation or in contact with chemicals. When it comes to chemically hazardous assets, humans aren’t being used to empty out chemicals and inspect within, in what is known as a confined space entry (CSE), There’s less exposure to potential chemicals lingering after a thorough cleaning. The use of crawlers and robotics means that people do not have to enter assets at all but are enabled to capture the same amount of data and quality. Companies like Dow (NYSE: DOW) are trying to eliminate all CSE inspections by 2025. 

Rigzone: What are the current limitations of this technology?

Demmer: Buying technology and productions are definitely the biggest current limitations of robotics; training, buying, fixing, getting the newest and best technology. This is the benefit of working with Gecko, we are aiming to eliminate these limitations by offering our expertise and teams. 

Another point is the weight and challenges in transporting these robotics. Lightweight and easy-to-move alternatives need to be available to the market.

Rigzone: What are some misconceptions you regularly see within the oil and gas industry about robots, and how would you respond to these assumptions?

Demmer: The main barrier to entry here is perception. Implementing robotics in-plant inspections is often perceived as a lengthy, exhaustive, and expensive process that involves overhauling, replacing, or retraining staff and implementing radical digital transformation processes. Our mission at Gecko is to break down this barrier; we’re working to bring down the price to an access point, especially when it comes to integrations into plants – for instance, training of staff, systems and processes, etc. 

We will be offering alternative solutions to training and in-house running – again touching on this idea of “robotics as a service.” For example, plant managers may think that they need to firstly buy robots, then implement and train staff on how to run this with an extensive training process whereas, actually, third-party inspection teams can be brought in to manage expectations and take away the pressures on plant staff.

Looking at the benefits, there are plenty. Firstly, let’s look at the data element. Having cleaner, more reliable data collected by robotics will make plant management more efficient and plant managers’ jobs easier by providing a deeper level of understanding. By streamlining and consolidating the data that is being collected, managers will be able to pinpoint issues and create actionable results. 

There is also often fear that robotics will fully replace humans, moving to a full-automation model. Although robotics will replace some parts of the inspection process, the idea here is to take humans out of hazardous situations, making outcomes safer and more reliable

Rigzone: Looking ahead in the next, say, 5-10 years, where do you think we’ll see major advances in robotics oil and gas applications?

Demmer: It is quite understood that these technologies are going to continue to evolve, get better, and get cheaper. As that happens, more and more use cases will be transitioned to robots and other semi-autonomous platforms. At that point, the onus is going to shift to creative ways to extract value from all the data coming from the sensors. The baseline robotic data is more than sufficient to meet the needs of the current inspection regime. The trick is to extract the value from the additional 90% that the plant never had before.

To contact the author, email Check out recent additional Rigzone articles about robots applicable to the oil and gas industry that dance and slither.


Tree PNG back


Tree PNG back




Tree PNG back


Application Notes