From drones to robots to rope access, owners and contractors are finding new ways to reduce ‘at-risk’ labor hours

THE BOT: Joshua Vaughn and his robotics and controls research group at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette are working with Japanese developer HiBot Corp. to develop a “cable-driven parallel manipulator” to inspect vertical metallic surfaces such as in chemical storage tanks. Photo by Terri Fensel.

Advances in inspection technology are playing a sizeable role in minimizing “at-risk” labor hours in the industrial space. Ranging from the old school to the high-tech, the process of inspecting vessels and equipment is going through a radical transformation.

The desire for change is understandable. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction fatalities numbered 991 in 2016 (the most recent data available), comprising more than 20% of all worker deaths in the country. The leading cause of these fatalities was falls, followed by being struck by an object, electrocution and crushing accidents.

In an effort to take humans out of the equation, there has been a lot of buzz around drones and robotic technology in recent months. Among a host of other reasons, a big part of the appeal is that contractors and owners can sidestep OSHA’s stringent Confined Space Entry (CSE) standard. Confined spaces include, but are not limited to, tanks, vessels, silos, vaults, equipment housings, ductwork and pipelines.

“Our approach to safety for the last couple of years has been exposure reduction,” says Scott Waguespack, mechanical services manager at BASF in Geismar. “If you eliminate the hazard, then you’ve completely taken it out of the situation.”

“You’re not putting a human at risk. That’s No. 1,” says Lance Wiebeck, project manager at Turner Industries in Baton Rouge. “The number of at-risk hours goes down right off the top.” Turner has jumped into the robotics market with both feet, and today uses the technology for a variety of industrial applications such as tank, vessel and pipe inspections. The contractor’s inspection and non-destructive examination group relies upon a diverse lineup of robots and employs more than 500 full-time engineers, technicians and certified inspectors.

Wiebeck and Sean Stanford, operations manager, have been heavily involved in the oversight of Turner’s robotics initiative, and in first quarter 2018 hope to further expand the fleet. They expect the new investment to pay for itself in short order.

“The units will be able to go into something as small as 4 inches in diameter up to 72 inches and greater,” Wiebeck says. “And with magnetic wheels, they’ll be able to crawl up the sides or go into a piece of equipment and go vertical. That opens up new avenues that previously were not possible.”

Additionally, the newer robotics lines are submersible up to 100 feet.

Turner’s devices typically use ultrasonic testing to find undetected corrosion, cracks or other defects in surfaces. They are also well-suited for well and tank inspections. “There’s a robotic crawler that uses LFET [low-frequency electromagnetic technique]. That allows us to drive on a tank floor and access those areas without putting individuals at risk.”

Louisiana’s academia is also dipping its toes into the robotics market.

At the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, assistant professor Joshua Vaughn and his robotics and controls research group are working with Japanese developer HiBot Corp. to develop a “cable-driven parallel manipulator” to inspect vertical metallic surfaces such as in chemical storage tanks.

The technology resembles a skycam at a football stadium and consists of a device suspended from cables and winches.

While HiBot is handling the device’s mechanical design, Vaughn is designing the control system—“the software that gets the machine to do what we want it to do”—from newly renovated lab space on campus. The initiative is funded by the Louisiana Board of Regents’ Industrial Ties Research Subprogram.

“We’re currently determining if the system can drive around the outer edge of a tank effectively as the robot hangs over the side for inspection purposes,” he adds. “It’s a cable-driven system where the winches are able to autonomously move around the tank.”

The system will be portable and could soon be available for commercial applications. “I don’t know when an off-the-shelf version will be available, but in a year’s time we could start looking at specific applications,” Vaughn says.


‘LIKE RINGING A BELL’: Tim Harris, plant manager at Eastman Chemical in St. Gabriel, is impressed with the reliability of acoustic emission testing for detecting cracks in his plant’s pressurized reactor. Photo by Don Kadair.

As another inspection tool, drones have become so prevalent that the Alliance Safety Council in Baton Rouge plans to unveil a drone safety course in first quarter 2018. George Rey, who helped develop the 2.5-hour course, says it’s long overdue, since many owners, contractors and suppliers are already using the technology with no formal training.

By law, any pilot flying a drone for commercial purposes is required to comply with Part 107 of Federal Aviation Regulations and obtain a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) pilot’s license. If they don’t, they could face a felony charge and hefty fines.

Rey, who is president of the Louisiana Pelican Chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, says there are big changes on the horizon for the drone industry. It’s widely anticipated that the FAA will soon allow pilots to fly beyond “visual line of sight.” Currently, they must maintain visual contact with the drone, a rule that severely limits their potential.

“It’s going to be all about procedure,” Rey says. “They will let you fly as long as you follow whatever guidance they come up with.” The new rules are expected sometime in 2018.

Turner Industries has licensed pilots who operate a fleet of six drones for both external and internal inspections. On windier days, the contractor uses its DJI Matrice 600 Pro, a larger, more stable octocopter.

“It has 45 minutes of battery life, which is important for flare stack inspections,” Wiebeck says. “Its camera also has 60x magnification, so we can fly 100 feet away from the flare and actually read the serial number.”

Incredibly, Turner can even fly into pipes as small as 16 inches in diameter utilizing a DJI Elios drone, which is encased within a protective carbon fiber sphere.

Other revolutionary advancements are on the horizon—one new drone line will be able to take ultrasonic thickness measurements. At a price tag of more than $50,000, it could be commercially available early this year. “We would be able to go up a tower and take thickness readings. Previously, you’d have to bring in a crane and man-basket, or you’d have to scaffold it.”

In the world of offshore oil, Dr. Balaji Ramachandran, associate professor of geomatics at Nicholls State University, has been actively working with the FAA and Shell to develop procedures for the safe operation of drones around offshore platforms. Ultimately, this could open up a new world for the industry, one day allowing the delivery of goods and materials to the rigs by drone.

Ramachandran’s work with Shell falls in line with the company’s commitment to automate much of its offshore operations by 2025, thereby minimizing the impact to human safety. In particular, drones have the potential to significantly reduce safety hazards during flare inspections.

“They’re having all these people climb up the stacks, so you’re putting a person, a human operator, in danger,” Ramachandran says.

Still, operating a drone on an offshore platform brings its own safety concerns, and Ramachandran is working with Shell in developing safety protocols.

“Everybody thinks if you can operate a helicopter it should be easy to operate a drone. In reality, you still have to worry about safety. For example, the lithium batteries that go in the drones can explode, so we have to develop standards for transferring the batteries to the platform to minimize the risk.”


LICENSED PILOTS: George Rey, left, who is president of the Louisiana Pelican Chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, helped develop a drone safety course the Alliance Safety Council in Baton Rouge planned to unveil in early 2018. Photo by Cheryl Gerber.

While not considered “high-tech,” some inspection methods still manage to minimize at-risk hours in more conventional ways. For the last two years, BASF’s Geismar facility has relied increasingly on the “old school” methodology of rope access inspections. Initially developed from techniques used in climbing and caving, rope access allows workers to access difficult-to-reach locations without the use of scaffolding, cradles or aerial work platforms.

In 2017, BASF authorized about 660 of the inspections, most performed by Capitol Ultrasonics LLC in Baton Rouge and its team of specially trained rope access inspectors.

“There’s a decent amount of planning that goes into it,” BASF’s Waguespack says. “These ropes aren’t hardware store ropes. It’s very specialized hardware; very similar to what you would use for rock climbing.” While scaffolding will always have its use, rope access eliminates the hazards commonly associated with the building, tearing down and climbing of scaffolding. It’s also more cost-effective in most cases.

At BASF, rope access is ideally suited for inspecting distillation columns, which are typically tall and small in diameter. Historically, inspection of the columns would require a significant amount of scaffolding. “We can literally do rope access in a 3-foot-diameter space,” Waguespack adds. On the other end of the spectrum, a team of rope access inspectors can tackle a 100-foot-diameter storage tank with 30-foot-tall side walls.


GOING OLD SCHOOL: BASF’s Geismar facility has relied increasingly on rope access inspections. Last year, the company authorized about 660 of the inspections, most performed by Capitol Ultrasonics. Courtesy Capitol Ultrasonics LLC

Tim Harris, plant manager at Eastman Chemical in St. Gabriel, is impressed with the reliability of acoustic emission testing for detecting cracks in his plant’s pressurized reactor. Comparing it to ringing a bell, he says strategically placed transducers can detect corrosion or cracks through sound waves. The process requires that transducers—aka listening devices—be glued to the exterior sides of the vessel, similar to an EKG device at a doctor’s office.

To prepare for the test, the reactor is taken out of service, emptied of product and filled with water. “You want to be able to stress it as much as possible because if you have a crack, you want to make sure you have enough stress to detect it,” he adds.

The test is sensitive enough to detect the smallest of cracks and the placement of multiple transducers can help triangulate the crack’s position. The process is less labor intensive than visual methods.

“If there’s a crack it’s going let out a sound,” says Richard Reeves, maintenance manager at Eastman. “And the time difference for that sound wave to hit the different transducers will give you a line of position.”

Communication is another important part of the inspection process, one that Honeywell recently addressed when it unveiled its Vocollect voice solution at the December Petrochemical Supply Chain & Logistics Conference in Houston. Utilizing a hands-free headset, Vocollect relies upon voice activation technology to direct technicians through checklists, thereby allowing hands-free, eyes-free voice data entry.

During the inspection process, the spoken information is converted into text and communicated back to the host data system with real-time updates. The technician also interacts with a display to review images or descriptions.

“We’re able to increase the speed of the process significantly through voice activation,” says Chris Munnelly, director of product marketing at Honeywell. “Wearing a headset, the hands are free, the eyes are free, and productivity is significantly increased.”

Honeywell can take an inspection checklist, digitize it and put it in the cloud or a locally based system. “We provide the ability for the worker to go through his task, and then the computer system will read off the list to him or her, and allow them to pause, do other work, and come back to it.”

As a next step, a client could use the data to ascertain the speed of an inspection and number of mistakes, as well as manage and coach workers across a large group. 

This article was originally published in the first quarter 2018 edition of 10/12 Industry Report. Read more from this issue at

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