March 02, 2016      

The global economy depends on oil and gas flowing steadily and reliably through millions of miles of underground pipelines. Any interruption caused by a worn or defective pipe can inconvenience consumers and cost businesses millions of dollars in lost production time and delayed deliveries.

While pipeline operators strive to provide efficient and reliable service, regular inspections are difficult, dangerous, and expensive to conduct, typically requiring ground excavation and time-consuming visual inspection.

The cost and perils associated with manual inspections is why most pipeline faults aren’t discovered until it’s too late, after the pipeline actually fails.

A robotic solution

ULC Robotics Inc. was founded with the goal of helping utilities providers by making pipeline inspections safer and easier to do, so they could be more frequent. ULC Robotics was the winner of a Game Changer award at RoboBusiness 2015.

“Our team develops advanced robotic tools and cameras capable of entering live pressurized gas mains to perform internal inspection and repair,” said Gregory Penza, president of Hauppauge, N.Y.-based ULC Robotics. “We can analyze and redesign standard processes in order to decrease the time and costs associated with planning and performing routine work.”

The majority of the robotic systems developed by ULC address the inspection, maintenance, and repair of buried pipelines, as well other types of infrastructure spanning several industries.

ULC’s robots enter a pipe through one small hole and can travel hundreds of feet in either direction to carry out inspection or repair tasks.

The company’s mainstay CISBOT robot, as well as its upcoming CIRRIS XI Inspection Robot and CIRRIS XR Repair Robot, all have the ability to assess the structural integrity of the pipe wall and repair leak-prone joints.

“This allows the gas utility to safely avoid replacing the pipe at a much lower cost and with minimal disturbance to the public,” Penza said.

ULC Robotics in Scotland

ULC Robotics’ CISBOT job site on George Street in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Other robots developed by ULC address problems associated with high-temperature steam pipelines, electrical conduits, and similar infrastructure elements.

Live internal joint sealing is perhaps the most important task tackled by the company’s robots, providing an efficient alternative to cast-iron pipe replacement and other forms of pipeline rehabilitation.

“Gas-distribution utilities, for example, are constantly repairing and replacing cast-iron mains in their network,” Penza noted. “This replacement activity is a massive financial investment and highly disruptive to the public.”

ULC’s robots can repair leaking joints, prevent sound joints from leaking, and extend the life of cast-iron natural-gas mains with only minimal excavation and while allowing continuous service to utility customers.

The company has so far sealed more than 5,000 cast-iron joints for gas companies throughout the Northeast U.S.

Penza said that rising costs associated with pipeline maintenance engineering, excavation, and roadbed reinstallation are combining to make what should be a relatively simple maintenance task extremely expensive.

Beyond cost considerations, the carbon footprint of construction vehicles, traffic backups, and other disruptions is something that makes both utilities and the public want to avoid excavation inspections.

“The deployment and use of our robots have worked to eliminate excavation by utilizing trenchless technology,” Penza said.

Most of ULC Robotics’ sales and research and development projects are the result of working directly with large utility companies such as SGN, PSE&G, National Grid, Con Edison, and Baltimore Gas and Electric, among many others, he added.

“We’ve also worked directly with global robotics companies and industrial clients to develop and deploy custom robotic inspection solutions,” Penza said.

He noted that ULC’s robots aren’t designed for specific companies but are tailored to solve specific problems that are brought to the company’s attention by its customers. The exact nature of the problem defines how the company’s designers and engineers will approach the R&D process.

Overcoming challenging environments

Penza said the biggest challenge ULC Robotics faces is designing and building robots that can withstand the rigors of daily operation in highly challenging and sensitive environments.

“We … work diligently devising methods to safely launch and operate our robots in live gas mains, and retrieve them from the mains while adhering to gas utility procedures,” Penza said.

Many of the company’s projects also demand robots that are capable of working flawlessly and efficiently in extremely cramped pipeline nooks and crannies. This unique need requires ULC engineers to scale electronics packages and power sources down to the smallest practical dimensions and to test tiny motors to ensure that they operate with the same efficiency and accuracy as their larger counterparts.

ULC also faces the challenge of meeting the needs of businesses working in highly regulated industries.

“Our customers are regulated by federal and state agencies and are held to a range of standards that benefit public interest and safety,” Penza said. “Failure to meet the challenges may result in fines or other penalties.”

For example, gas utilities are required to replace their high-risk pipelines on a preset schedule.

Meanwhile, leaks must be repaired within a specified time windows. Regulators also set the rates that utilities may charge the public for energy service, so ULC is always looking for ways of helping its customers to increase their efficiency and reduce their operational costs.

“As a company that provides essential services to these highly regulated industries, ULC works within strict guidelines and ensures the robots we deploy adhere to operational standards and safety procedures,” Penza said. “With many of our robots and inspection systems operating in live gas environments, we take the safety of our team, utility workers and the public very seriously.”

ULC Robotics looks ahead

ULC Robotics recently completed a successful field trial of a new pipeline-inspection system that was developed with U.K.-based gas network operator SGN (formerly Scotland Gas Networks PLC).

The system is designed to launch inspection and repair robots safely into live, large-diameter cast-iron pipelines and assess them for corrosion and stress, as well as renew leaking bell and spigot joints that are common areas of risk for such pipes.

The robots, which will operate in one of the most challenging and sensitive types of pipeline environments, represent the next stage of robotics evolution for the gas industry, Penza said.

ULC's CIRRIS XI in a pipe

The CIRRIS XI Inspection Robot, with sensor arm extended, operating inside a large cast-iron gas main.

The new system consists of two robots: the CIRRIS XI Inspection Robot and the CIRRIS XR Repair Robot.

The inspection robot is the first to use proprietary sensor technology to gather data from inside a pipe to determine wall thickness and stress points.

The repair robot, by injecting sealant into the joints of a cast iron gas main, is designed to fix existing leaks and prevent future leaks from occurring. To minimize disruption to the public, both of the robots can carry out their work in live gas mains.

“The successful field trials of the CIRRIS XI and CIRRIS XR robotic systems is paving the way for commercialized services of the system for late 2016,” Penza said.

To develop the CIRRIS XI and the CIRRIS XR, ULC’s team of mechanical and electrical engineers, sensor scientists, and precision machinists worked with SGN’s innovation team to integrate the needs of the gas utilities with cutting-edge technologies, Penza said.

“The shared vision of making a positive impact to gas customers, the environment, and to gas networks around the globe is what drove our teams to complete the two-year project,” he said.

According to Penza, energy utilities will soon be applying advanced robots such as the CISBOT, CIRRIS XI, and CIRRIS XR more systematically to ensure that their services can meet the demands of their rising number of customers.

Not only must they maintain and exceed sustainability standards, but the robots must also deliver reliable service that is connected and online.

“ULC’s teams are looking toward the future and are committed to refining, improving, and developing robotic systems that will be instrumental in growth of the industry,” he said.

Innovation starts with ULC’s staff, which possesses a diverse range of experience and talents. “Both the R&D team and the field deployment team, as well as our clients, provide valuable input into each project to ensure that we develop solutions for the real world,” Penza said.

ULC’s next big step will take the company from deep under the soil to high in the sky.

“We are preparing to launch our unmanned aerial inspection service to provide utilities with aerial inspections and surveys of difficult-to-access structures and pipelines,” Penza said.

ULC Robotics believes that its drones will provide utilities with safe and efficient visual and sensor assessments while decreasing pipeline downtime, improving worker safety, and lowering inspection costs.

“We have a team of UAV operators who are licensed pilots and also possess various certifications and operator qualifications to safely carry out high-quality inspections for our clients,” Penza said.