Reynolds Wrap Up: Have You Begun to Apply Robotics/Drones for Inspection Purposes?

By John Reynolds, Principal Consultant at Intertek. April 29, 2021


In December 2020, I had the pleasure of virtually attending ASME’s Robotics for Inspection & Maintenance Summit. I also attended the previous robotics event in September 2019, which was held in person at College Station, Texas before the pandemic set in. I was pleased to see the numerous specialized applications for robotic and drone-type inspection and maintenance. This is sometimes referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which are becoming increasingly available to us for fixed equipment mechanical integrity (FEMI) applications. Although, some aspects of the presentations during the event were about emerging technologies not yet available commercially.

During the conference, I had the opportunity to watch several videos from Boston Dynamics of their dog- and human-like robots (named Spot and Atlas) that were able to do some amazing things. I was surprised how far along they had come from the more primitive robots. If you haven’t seen those videos, search “Boston Dynamics robotics” on YouTube. It’s fascinating viewing [1].

Some inspection robots are controlled by a human nearby with a controller and joystick while others can be programmed to go into a situation and carry out a task without a human controller (i.e., autonomous robotics/UAVs).

Clearly, the robotics inspection industry is still in the early phases of gaining traction and developing applications that will benefit our industry; however, it does appear to me that they will find some niche applications that will make them competitive with human inspectors.

Our lack of understanding of what robotics can and cannot do is often matched by the service provider’s lack of familiarity with our needs and job sites, so a lot of discussions are usually necessary before a contract is signed. If you have a complex, difficult job in mind for robotic inspection, before you launch into it, you may want to begin with something simple just to gain some experience with the service provider and their tools. If you are one of the first to engage a robotics job at your site (or within your company), you may want to keep a good record of how well the job went (including cost comparisons with human-based inspections) relative to your expectations and contractual agreement that you can share with others that may want to try robotics inspection.

In this Reynolds Wrap Up, I will briefly summarize some of my takeaways from the two-day conference, including:

  • Interesting applications
  • Challenges that robotic inspection suppliers still face
  • Pros and cons of robotic and UAV inspection
  • Questions you may want to explore before you sign a contract to apply robotic inspections

Some Interesting Applications

Clearly, the UAV/drone tools/techniques are aimed at inspecting relatively inaccessible equipment and surfaces and thereby somewhat compete with rope access inspection (RAI), but of course, they cannot yet compete with everything a well-trained RAI technician can do. The robotics market seems to be aimed largely at being able to do inspection in confined space entry (CSE) type situations without exposing humans to the potential safety issues involved with CSE. But robotic crawlers also are aimed at reducing other human safety exposures including risks associated with elevated structures and piperacks. Some service providers were not only able to capture and report data but also were starting to get into data analytics.

Probably by now, most of you are aware of or are even using UAV/drones for remote visual inspections (RVI) for elevated structures (i.e., offshore platforms, tank tops, flare tips, etc.). One supplier was also using them for doing piperack contact point corrosion (CPC) qualitative inspections which they would then grade on a visual scale of appearance to help owner-operators determine where they would prioritize their more quantitative CPC inspections.

Another supplier demonstrated cleaning and inspecting water wall tubes in a boiler using robotics with water blasting and then conducting ultrasonic testing (UT)/RVI follow-up examinations.

Another supplier showed a wireless operated robotic radiographic testing (RT) crawler to qualitatively inspect horizontal pipes in a piperack while being controlled from a laptop. One feature that caught my attention was how it could lift its RT arm and drive past an obstruction (like a support beam or nozzle) and resume inspection on the other side of it.

Of course, a lot of robotic crawlers are magnetically driven on ferromagnetic materials of construction, but one demonstration showed a vacuum-based driver inside a stainless steel tank that crawled across the floor and then was able to make a vertical right turn up the side of the tank for continued inspection. They claimed to be able to use RVI and UT technology on their platform. The tank that they videoed was spotlessly clean.

Once again at this year’s conference, there were demonstrations of drones that could take UT thickness readings both internally and externally on vessels and tanks at elevated locations. One showed a probe mounted on a swivel joint that could then cope with almost any surface curvature while the drone stayed fairly horizontal. One supplier is developing a methodology to do B-scanning in addition to spot UT from a UAV.

Another service company demonstrated how they could go into a tank (CSE situation), grit blast a surface, vacuum up the grit, and then lay down a polymeric coating using a multi-tool robot. Another demonstrated how they could enter a tank for inspection through a roof manway without the tank having to be cleaned for inspection or prepped for entry (i.e., for personnel safety). No one is anywhere near being able to do that with anything like a crude storage tank that has the typical amount of heavy bottom sludge.

Another application used was a robot coating the exterior shell of a large aboveground storage tank with a robotic device (80% of the job) and then followed up with normal human-based painting where it was difficult for the robot to access the surface to be coated (i.e., attachments, stairs, nozzles, etc.), which ends up saving a lot of money on scaffolding.

I witnessed some incredible RVI resolution such as being able to clearly see something that was only 0.063 inches large from 90 feet away from the surface. Another application used UAVs (for RVI) and rope access (for nondestructive examination) together to enhance the inspection coverage in difficult access situations.

Advantages, Limitations, and Challenges

Obviously, all service providers are going to push their services and make sure you know what the advantages of their applications include; however, some may not be so forthright in telling you about their limitations even though there are a lot of them still. Other service providers may not be entirely aware of all their limitations at this early stage in development and application. Robotics inspection services are still in their infancy of development and field application, so we have a long way to go before each service has an extended track record.

One advantage for robotic inspections in CSE situations is that it eliminates the need for a hole-watch as well as the advantage of not putting a human in a potentially unsafe environment. Even though there may be reduced safety risks associated with not putting humans in some environments, there may be other safety risks associated with robotic inspections that need to be understood.

Detailed planning of the robotics inspection is even more important than with human-based inspections since the human will not be right there “on the scene” when something goes wrong to solve problems.

Some of the challenges that need to be overcome include:

  • Lack of robust and detailed inspection procedures in a developing industry
  • Lack of experience and a successful track record of many services
  • Inability to handle unanticipated problems encountered after the robotics are deployed
  • Limited battery size before recharging or battery change-out is needed
  • Weight and payload limitations that the robot can carry

Questions/Issues to Explore with UAV/Robotics Service Providers

One of the primary takeaways for me listening to the various presentations is that anyone who is planning to contract for robotics inspection services needs to ask a lot of questions about what the service provider tools and techniques can and cannot do and what to expect from the final deliverables (i.e., accuracy, precision, etc.) versus what is expected, needed, or required. With that in mind, here are some issues/questions you may want to raise with robotics service providers, which depends upon your particular application and the type of robotics you are considering:

  • What are the economic advantages of robotics/drones (if any) relative to having a human do the inspection?
  • How large are the setup and tear down costs relative to the actual inspection costs when using robotics/drones?
  • Do you understand all of your risks of the service contractor’s failure to perform the actual service because of some unknowns or lack of familiarity with the equipment to be inspected or issues associated with the job site?
  • How many jobs like yours has the contractor done so far and how many sites like yours has the contractor worked at?
  • Will you be working with prototype applications or ones that have been proven through sufficient field applications?
  • Does your service provider have job-specific procedures for the type of inspection you want them to accomplish or are their procedures very generic and in need of being significantly modified/enhanced to become job-specific for your situation/needs?
  • What are all the potential obstacles to success with the on-site inspection service and how would your service provider overcome them?
  • What will be the difference between the quantity and quality of data capture between robotic inspection and your standard (human-based) data collection process (e.g., during CSE or other data capture by a qualified technician handling the inspection instruments)?
  • How long is the battery life for the robot before it has to be changed or recharged?
  • Is the robot intrinsically safe? Does it need to be?
  • How many different types of sensors or tools can the robot platform work with?
  • Can the robotic inspection service reduce the need for scaffolds as well as avoiding the human interface with the surface to be inspected?
  • Can robotics help with inspection planning by going into CSE situations as preparation for entry to make sure it is safe for humans to enter in order to collect information/data that may help plan necessary repairs and other activities during a turnaround?
  • How does the robot device handle obstacles that they may encounter, especially if they are unanticipated obstacles?
  • What are the payload limitations of the robotics (i.e., how much weight/volume can they carry in order to do everything you need to be done that a human would normally carry with them)?
  • Should you do a pre-job risk assessment of every possible threat that the robot might encounter while on the job?
  • What differences may there be between data quality/quantity vs. human-based inspections? Will it be able to deliver the required information?
  • Are there some risks associated with robotics that are not an issue with human-based inspections?
  • What are the plans for retracting a robot that gets stuck inside your equipment?
  • What unanticipated issues has your service provider encountered with their services so far and how did they overcome them?
  • How good is their RVI resolution?
  • What are the temperature limits of their service (upper and lower)?
  • What degree of cleanliness will be necessary for the inspection devices?


The conference was fascinating and informative, though some more effort could be made to minimize the amount of commercialism in the presentations and to direct the commercialism part of the conference into the exhibit hall. I learned about and/or witnessed the applications of some technologies that I was not familiar with and still don’t have a good understanding of (e.g., autoencoders, spatially dense data, remote profilometry, photogrammetry, Creaform 3D scanning, LIDAR, 3D localization). You won’t find those terms in your Funk and Wagnalls, but you can Google them. Clearly, the robotics inspection methodology/technology is developing rapidly but is still in the early stages with some applications getting into commercial applications and some still in the emerging technology phase. ASME is now working on developing a standard on UAV applications which they hope to publish within a year or so. For me, these last two ASME Robotics Conferences were a real growing experience, which even causes an “old dog to learn new tricks.” I would love to come back in 20 years and see how these new technologies have impacted our FEMI community of practice.




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