A robotics ‘dream team’ of KAUST graduates

Saudi Aramco’s Intelligent Systems team is based on the KAUST campus, and its members, which include mostly KAUST graduates, work on prototyping intelligent systems for the company. Photo by Lilit Hovhannisyan.

By Caitlin Clark, KAUST News

In 2012, Saudi Aramco hired seven KAUST master's degree graduates holding passports from nine different countries to form the company's Intelligent Systems team. The team's mission: to rapidly prototype intelligent systems—like robots—to solve Aramco's different oil and gas operations challenges.

Originally based at the company's headquarters in Dhahran, the new hires—who were all under the age of 25—began working on their first project, a magnetic robotic inspection crawler.

With their wide-ranging backgrounds in mechanical engineering, electronics engineering and computer science, the team members developed their first robot SAIR, or Saudi Aramco Inspection Robot, taking it from pencil drawings to a fully functional prototype in just 18 months.

The team developed SAIR, or Saudi Aramco Inspection Robot, in only 18 months. Through wireless operation, the robot carries out visual and ultrasonic inspection of Aramco’s steel operational assets, like pipes, and senses gases. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

Before SAIR's completion, Aramco's Research & Development Center relocated the team back to KAUST, where they are now based at the company's satellite office in the University's Research & Technology Park. Five of the team's seven founding members remain.

SAIR is unique because it can conduct both visual and ultrasonic inspection of Aramco's steel operational assets—like tanks, vessels and pipes—and sense flammable and hazardous gases. It is operated wirelessly; is compact and self-contained; can move on curved surfaces; and detects steel thinning caused by corrosion in difficult-to-access locations. But the project came with a huge number of challenges for the young team.

A Saudi Aramco engineer tests SAIR on a pipe at a company facility. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.


Designing robots

"Our robots are of an industrial grade, and they have to go through field testing and deployment, which is far from what we were used to in developing academic project robots," explained Hassane Trigui (M.S. '11, electrical engineering), a founding member of the team. "Creating a proof of concept for SAIR at the beginning was very similar to our academic experience, but we found a challenging transition when going into field testing and fulfilling the requirements of our proponents and end users."

Fadl Abdellatif, a founding member of the Intelligent Systems team and a KAUST graduate (M.S. ’11), works on SAIR in the team’s lab on the KAUST campus. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

"Throughout your academic career, you don't expect to have an end user other than yourself, so meeting the end users' needs factored heavily into the design cycle," reiterated Sahejad Patel (M.S. '11, mechanical engineering), also a founding member of the team.

"Because we focus on rapid technology development, our design was iterated quickly and all our team members were involved—we went through a learning curve together to adapt," he continued. "No one person can build a robot alone—it's an interdisciplinary field, and teamwork was very important."

A 'dream team' from KAUST

"All of our original team members were recruited from KAUST because they were top in their academic fields," noted founding team member Brian Parrott (M.S. '11, chemical and biological engineering). "We formed a 'dream team' to get this done. Even though we were fresh out of school and working in the relatively new field of mobile robotics, we said, 'We can do this,' and we pushed ourselves to make sure we delivered what we promised."

Aramco’s Intelligent Systems team stands in their lab on the KAUST campus, displaying two of their robots and some of their awards, including Saudi Aramco’s 2014 CEO Excellence Award. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

SAIR won the team the International Glory Medal from the International Federation of Inventors' Associations in 2013 and Saudi Aramco's 2014 CEO Excellence Award—the highest award Aramco gives to its employees.

"We were very proud of our accomplishments," said Fadl Abdellatif (M.S. '11, mechanical engineering), another founding member of the team. "This was the first robotics project Aramco came out with, and it was conceived in-house. Few people believed something like this could be done in Saudi Arabia, but we proved we could build an internationally recognized robot here."

Patenting SAIR

The team received a total of 10 patents for SAIR's technology.

The team tests SAIR’s operation at an Aramco facility, checking to see how the robot moves high above ground on a pipe. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

"One of our biggest innovations was the magnetic design of SAIR's wheels to allow the robot to attach to ceilings, intricate surfaces and curved pipes high above the ground," continued Abdellatif. "For example, in gas plants, we have pipes that can be over 30 meters above ground. They're very difficult to reach—scaffolding must be built to get to them for inspections. This is dangerous for inspectors and costly in terms of manual labor to construct the scaffolding.

"With SAIR, none of this has to be done—inspections and measurements of the pipe wall thickness to prevent potential leaks can all be completed by the robot."

SAIR is controlled wirelessly and inspects pipes high above ground, moving with the use of its magnetic wheels. The team received 10 patents for their innovative technology. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

SAIR is now in the commercialization phase with a startup that is a joint venture between Aramco and local investors. The startup, called Arabian Robotics, received a license for SAIR's patents and has two robots on-hand to begin real inspection jobs.

KAUST-based assets

Another important aspect of SAIR's success was the team's partnership with KAUST on campus.

The Intelligent Systems team’s work on SAIR won them the International Glory Medal from the International Federation of Inventors Association in 2013 and Saudi Aramco’s CEO Excellence Award in 2014. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

"All of us led one part of the effort for the robot, but we wouldn't have been able to complete it so quickly without the assistance of KAUST Procurement and the Core Labs," explained Ayman Amer (M.S. '11, electrical engineering), a founding team member. "Procurement helped us to have quick access to equipment, electronics and off-the-shelf components, and we used the Core Labs' resources to build some printed circuit boards and fabricate different mechanical parts. We also benefitted from access to KAUST professors and students, who joined us as interns in our lab during the summer."

Shallow water robotics

As the team wound up work on SAIR, they began concentrating on their next project—a robot called SWIM-R, or Shallow Water Inspection and Monitoring Robot, which inspects underwater pipelines. This project was even more challenging than the last.

Founding team member Sahejad Patel, a 2011 KAUST master’s degree graduate, works on SWIM-R, or Shallow Water Inspection and Monitoring Robot, in the Aramco lab on the KAUST campus. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

"With SAIR, we'd started to build our name as a robotics and research team," Amer noted. "During the ceremony for the CEO Excellence Award, then-Aramco President and CEO H.E. Khalid A. Al-Falih asked what our next step was as a team. We told him we wanted to tackle underwater challenges, and he encouraged us to take on that endeavor. Right away after the ceremony we began brainstorming for SWIM-R, but we had literally no experience with developing underwater technologies."

"The objective with SWIM-R was to reduce the use of divers for inspecting underwater pipelines. As with pipes above ground, we have to inspect underwater pipelines periodically to make sure they are in good condition, but diving is dangerous, expensive—especially when sending out a large diving support ship with a diving crew—and not something to be taken lightly. Moreover, large ships cannot access shallow water regions," Abdellatif explained.

The team prototyped SWIM-R to help Saudi Aramco reduce the use of divers for inspecting underwater pipelines, an expensive and potentially dangerous task. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

Built for Aramco's Marine Operations Department, SWIM-R can be deployed from a small boat that can access shallow waters. The robot swims toward pipelines, takes photos, videos and technical measurements of the pipes, and can also clean off any marine growth with a water jet. No similar robot is available in the market.

SWIM-R inspects a pipe in the Arabian Gulf in this Aramco photo. The robot measures pipe voltage and thickness using sensors and can also clean marine growth off of pipes with a water jet. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

"The robot has an arm equipped with sensors that take measurements of a pipe's voltage and thickness. Our sensors take these measurements simultaneously at one contact point, speeding up the inspection job," added Abdellatif. "Once again, it took the efforts of the whole team in all their different disciplines to complete the project and construction of multiple prototypes to which we kept adding features."

Rapid development

The team spent many "long hours under the sun testing prototypes and fixing issues," as Trigui noted. "We had assistance at KAUST from the marine facilities in the Core Labs, where we tested our robot's prototypes in their tanks, and they trained us in designing water-proof enclosures."

An Intelligent Systems team member tests SWIM-R in the group’s lab on the KAUST campus. The team filed nine patents for the robot and received Aramco’s CEO Excellence Award in 2017 for their work. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

SWIM-R was completed in just under two years, with the team filing nine patents for their robot and publishing three research papers on their work. In 2017, they received Aramco's CEO Excellence Award for SWIM-R. The robot is now in the commercialization phase, with the team hoping for a commercial product by the end of 2018.

Intelligent Systems team members work on SWIM-R in their lab on the KAUST campus. No other matching robot is available in the market. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

Dust mitigation and tank calibration

The team so far tackled two other key projects: constructing a robotic dust mitigation system for solar panels and producing a technology for measuring Aramco's storage tank volumes.

"We looked around the Kingdom and we saw that even though we have some of the best solar resources in the world, dust is a huge problem for solar power here—it makes it much more expensive to capture solar power," explained Parrott.

The team went through three product iterations to produce a simple, cheap system reducing the impact of dust on solar panels. Unlike with SWIM-R, their first versions had more features than the last.

The Intelligent Systems team’s work on robotic dust mitigation produced a prototype that resulted in three patents and two published journal papers. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

"We had to think what we could take off to reduce cost," Parrott said. "We did the opposite engineering of what we usually do."

Their final product resulted in three patents and two journal paper publications "because we found really clever ways of solving problems," he continued. "It was fun for us to look at a problem, find a solution that's totally different from what is out there on the market and make it simpler."

The team's technology has now been licensed to on campus-based startup NOMADD, with tests ongoing at the campus's New Energy Oasis.

Simplicity in technology

In the space of one year, the team produced its technology—called Custody Tank Transfer Calibration, or CTTC—to better and more frequently measure the volume of Aramco's custody and royalty tanks. These function as transfer tanks for crude oil and other refined products being transported to customers.

The team tests its Custody Tank Transfer Calibration (CTTC) technology on an Aramco storage tank at a company facility. CTTC enables accurate measurement of Aramco’s storage tank volumes. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

"The issue the company faced was that its tanks expand over time and with use," Patel said. "Once the tanks expand, you lose your volume estimation, so you don't know how much oil you are giving your customer, for example."

To keep an accurate estimation of volume, a manual process involving multiple workers measuring the tanks by hand must be done, which is costly and slow.

"We set out to keep our technology as simple as possible: there is a robot that travels along the tank and a station that shoots a laser beam which is stuck in the bottom of the tank. The robot crawls up the tank and—through the use of the laser beam—can detect if the tank is bulging outward or inward, building a complete profile of the tank's volume," Abdellatif explained. "Our automated process is much faster and more attractive for the end users."

Custody Tank Transfer Calibration (CTTC) technology works by using a laser beam shot at a robot crawling up the side of a storage tank. The laser beam allows engineers to produce a profile of the tank’s volume. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

Robotics and the future

"There are few teams working in robotics in Saudi Arabia," noted team member Mohammad Ababtain, who joined Intelligent Systems in late 2015. "We're one of the 'beginners' in that area, but we're working hard to make sure the Kingdom will lead in robotics in the future."

"We feel our work gives Saudi Arabia more of a 'technology-creator' status than just a 'technology-user' status," Patel said. "We also want to contribute to Saudi Arabia's focus on future smart cities—these cannot be created without robots and intelligent systems."

Intelligent Systems team members Sahejad Patel (left) and Fadl Abdellatif, both 2011 KAUST master’s degree graduates, work on their SWIM-R technology in the Aramco lab on the KAUST campus. The team hopes their prototypes will make Saudi Arabia a leader in robotics in the future. Image courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

"Our robots are opening opportunities for new startups and jobs in the Kingdom, and for the local workforce to contribute to building them, deploying them and operating them in the field," Trigui added.

"We're proud of saying our technologies are 'made in Saudi Arabia,'" said Abdellatif. "We want to continue improving the Kingdom's knowledge-based economy by gathering knowledge and building skills—through addressing the challenges Aramco faces every day."

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