Middle Eastern countries have the most complex and extensive oil and gas pipeline network in the world and are expected to have a total length of 24066.9km of pipelines by 2022. Routine inspection and active maintenance of these structures thus have high priority in the oil and gas operations. Pigging, the commonly used internal inspection method is expensive and the need for pre-installation procedures for flawless pig operations makes it time-consuming. The external inspection is currently done manually by a group of operators who either drives or walks over the buried pipeline structures. The visual/sensor data collected using various handheld devices are then analyzed manually to identify/locate the possible anomalies. The accuracy of data collected and their analysis highly depends upon the experience of the operators. Also, the extreme environmental conditions like high temperature and uneven terrain make the manual inspection a tedious task. The challenges in the current manual inspection methods can be tackled by using a robotic platform equipped with various sensors that can detect, navigate and tag the buried oil and gas pipelines.
In UAE, the oil and gas pipelines are mostly buried under a berm, a raised trapezoidal structure made up of sand over the buried pipeline structure. The pipelines are buried under the berm either as (i) single pipeline buried in the middle of the berm or as (ii) two pipelines buried on the two edges of the berm. To conduct any external inspection of buried pipelines using a robotic platform, the accurate location of the buried pipeline has to be known beforehand. The proposed Autonomous Robotic Inspection System (ARIS) should have the capability to precisely locate the buried pipeline structure and navigate along with these structures without any fail/skid. A novel hierarchical controller based on a pipe-locator and ultrasonic sensor data is developed for ARIS for detection and navigation over the buried pipeline structures. The hierarchical controller consists of two modules: (i) pipe-locator based tracking controller, that allows the vehicle to autonomously navigate over the buried pipeline and (ii) a sonar-based anti-topple controller which provides an extra layer of protection for vehicle navigation under extreme conditions. An experimental setup, similar to the real buried pipeline condition was built in a lab environment. The autonomous tracking performance of ARIS was tested under various buried pipeline laying conditions. The results obtained show the ability of ARIS to track and navigate along the buried pipeline even in extreme conditions without any fall/skid.