Robots - part 2

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Shale Environmental Technology Review A weblog reviewing environmental technologies used in shale gas and oil exploration and production with special emphasis on applications in the northeastern U.S. « Back to posts

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November 13, 2011 Robots To The Rescue In The Marcellus Shale, Pt. 2

While pipes are still under pressure, innovative robotic devices navigate through natural gas wells and transportation pipelines to deal with leaks, corrosion, and lime deposits--mitigating environmental impacts and contributing to company bottom line results.

(Continued from Part 1)


Robotic devices have a history in the oil and gas business that is somewhat different from that in other industries, where the main incentive for adopting robots has been to increase productivity and efficiency through a high level of automation. In oil and gas, robots have filled specific niche applications, mainly to address safety issues. Robotics are being used now for a wide array of applications, including remote operation of oil and gas fields where hazardous conditions arise. They have also been used to inspect various machinery and to identify parts, by use of 3-D remote cameras, that should be changed out. Generally, these applications have been limited to areas where it would be impossible or difficult for humans to do the same job. Examples include pipeline inspections, drilling automation, well tractors, and specialized inspections.

Pipeline leaks

Some of the worst natural gas leaks occur in cities where cast-iron pipes were used to transport gas. When first put in place, these cast-iron pipes were typically sealed with jute, which tends to dry out over decades of use and allow gas to leak. To repair these leaks, a robotic device can be inserted into the pipe, and its on-board cameras are used to guide the bot to a leaking joint. The device then drills the defective joint and injects a sealant. In this way there is no need to dig up the entire street. The device can be inserted through one hole, and is mobile within a range of several dozen meters. The leaky streets of San Francisco. The global average background methane level is 1.86 ppm. Image courtesy of New Scientist Magazine and Picarro.

Well interventions

A well that has been running for several years typically develops a considerable amount of lime deposit (scale) and corrosion from the natural gas and water flowing through it. Well performance can be enhanced by regular routine maintenance interventions. Well tractors are esentially mobile platforms that can be used to remove or mill scales from wells and safety devices, and to remove sand. They can also be used for other tasks, such as re-perforating a well, production logging, or to set plugs and packers to isolate zones. They can also be used with shale-gas wells to assure fracturing fluids do not contaminate ground water.

Companies active

Electromechanica Mattapoisett, Massachusetts-based engineering design firm that specializes in designing robotic devices and PIGbots.

Picarro San Francisco, California-based start-up with a laser-based device that makes it possible to take rapid measurements of gas concentrations on any street

ULCRobotics Bay Shore, New York-based company that has developed and deploys the Cast Iron Joint Sealing Robot (CISBOT) used for inspecting and maintaining New York City's natural gas pipelines It has partnered with Consolidated Edison of New York (Con Ed).

Welltec Houston, Texas-based provider of robotic devices, such as the company's Well Tractor used to perform various tasks in horizontal drilling, ranging from logging and perforation to opening and closing valves and removing impediments in the well bore


Choi, Andy, "Welltec Introduces Small Robotic Devices for Performing Well Maintenance Tasks,", June 14, 2011, accessed November 10, 2011

Downton, Geoff, and Steve Gomez, "Robots to the Rescue," Oilfield Review, Autumn, 2010: 22, no. 3., pp. 16-27, accessed November 10, 2011

McKenna, Phil, "Thousands of gas leaks under Boston and San Francisco," New Scientist, July 6, 2011, accessed November 10, 2011

Rigzone: E&P News, "Welltec Expands into Marcellus Shale with New Operating Facility," accessed November 10, 2011

Svoboda, Elizabeth, "Ailment: Rotting Pipelines - Cure: PIGbots," Discover Magazine, October, 2011, pg. 37

Welltec, "Case Story: Conveying Open Hole Log Evaluation Services," accessed November 10, 2011

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