KAUST graduates lead the way in Saudi Aramco’s robotic research

Pablo Carrasco Zanini, unit head of the KAUST-based Saudi Aramco Intelligent Systems Team and a 2011 KAUST master's degree graduate, works in the lab on one of Aramco's robotic crawlers. Photo courtesy of Saudi Aramco.

In 18 months from September 2012 to February 2014, the KAUST-based Saudi Aramco Intelligent Systems Team—all graduates of the University—designed and built a robotic crawler that can conduct visual and ultrasonic inspection of Aramco’s steel operational assets and sense gas. The robot is operated wirelessly, can move on curved surfaces and is compact and self-contained—it is an intelligent system capable of detecting steel thinning caused by corrosion in tanks, vessels, pipes and other difficult-to-access locations.

Developing the robotic inspection crawler from a pencil drawing to a fully functional prototype in such a short time was an industry first, winning the then eight-member team the Industry Glory Medal from the International Federation of Inventors Association in 2013.

Saudi Aramco’s R&D management envisioned the team of KAUST graduates working together on the University’s campus as an opportunity to boost both their performance and development; strengthen ties between academia and industry; and leverage the rapid development of robotic technology.

KAUST News sat down with Pablo Carrasco Zanini, a KAUST graduate in mechanical engineering and current unit head of the Intelligent Systems Team. Carrasco Zanini outlined the process of developing the new technology and the excitement it generated among the multinational and multi-disciplinary team.

KAUST News: What brought you to KAUST to study mechanical engineering?

Carrasco Zanini: Towards the end of my undergraduate program in mechatronics engineering in Mexico, I was looking for exciting opportunities to pursue a master’s degree, and I stumbled upon the KAUST program. It matched my requirements and seemed a great opportunity to work in world-class facilities with an international group of people. I applied and was accepted to the scholarship program, joining KAUST with the University’s second class of students in 2010.

KAUST News: Describe the Intelligent Systems Team and Saudi Aramco’s R&D Center at KAUST in more detail.

Carrasco Zanini: The Intelligent Systems Team is a multidisciplinary team of research engineers from 10 different countries. We operate under Saudi Aramco’s Research & Development Center, Oil & Gas Network Integrity Division, and we are permanently based at our Satellite Research Center in KAUST.

As a team, we focus on identifying operational challenges across the energy and chemicals sectors that can be addressed by developing novel robotic technologies following a business-driven, rapid development approach.

KAUST News: How would you best describe your research and the goals behind it?

Carrasco Zanini: If I had to pick a word to describe our research, I would pick “exciting.” There is always something exciting going on in our lab—maybe a new piece of software, a new printed circuit board or a new robotic prototype crawling around while under test—basically, there is always something “cooking.” Robotics as a field of research is often that way, especially when you have passionate researchers behind the wheel.

The team primarily concentrates on solving Aramco’s challenges and addressing the company’s needs, but we also try to create value in the Kingdom’s economy as much as synergies with this permit.

KAUST News: Describe the inception and development of the robotic crawler.

Carrasco Zanini: We are certainly proud of how far we’ve come with the Saudi Aramco Inspection Robot, or SAIR, as we call it. The idea originated from a combination of understanding both the customer’s needs as well as the state-of-the-art commercially available technologies, including their benefits and shortcomings.

We knew that our operation would find great benefit in minimizing the expenses and hazards associated with erecting scaffolding for the inspection of elevated or hard-to-reach structures, and it appeared that no commercially available technology could offer the right combination of functionalities and features for the job.

We targeted three main features: have the robot operate wirelessly; achieve a high level of maneuverability on different kinds of curved surfaces; and have the ability to run various kinds of inspection with the same device. Our idea went from a sketch on a piece of paper to a field-tested prototype in about a year and a half.

KAUST News: How is your team’s research addressing current and future challenges related to the Kingdom’s energy industry and building a knowledge-based economy?

Carrasco Zanini: As a part of Aramco’s Oil & Gas Network Integrity Division, we focus on projects that directly impact our ability to sustain reliable operations; for example, preventing failures and shutdowns due to loss of integrity in our pipelines. Inspection for corrosion is a subject of great interest in this context, and we address this for on-shore and underwater assets.

At the same time, we keep an eye open for opportunities where robotics may assist in promoting growth in the Kingdom’s economy, and in particular in the energy sector, where we believe that renewable energies—including solar energy—is an area where robotics will play an important role.

KAUST News: Where do you envision your type of research is headed in the future?

Carrasco Zanini: We believe we’ll continue to push the boundaries of robotics applications in the energy and chemicals sectors, tackling more and more challenging tasks—for example, moving from inspection and monitoring to repair and maintenance, introducing higher levels of autonomy or developing solutions for harsh environments. We want to make sure our team is seen as a serious player in the field of robotics.

KAUST News: How did KAUST facilities, faculty and staff aid in your research?

Carrasco Zanini: If we are not attending a KAUST seminar, we are looking for opportunities to contribute to the community, working with the staff of the University’s Core Labs to fabricate a new prototype or working with a KAUST professor on a collaborative research project.

The University’s Research Park, where we are based, is a very dynamic place where you’re always on your toes, waiting to see what new discoveries are produced. Being based here helped our team deliver faster and better results.

KAUST News: Overall, what drives you and the rest of the Intelligent Systems Team to discovery?

Carrasco Zanini: I think it’s just in our nature to discover new things—we get our kicks from finding new ways to solve a problem that no one could before, or from finding alternative and hopefully better solutions to problems people have already solved. Obviously, this applies to all researchers in general, but for us, to be able to do this in a field as awesome as robotics—well, it’s a really special thing in our work every day.

As our robotic crawler continues to make progress towards a potential market presence, we hope we’ll have more opportunities to share the successes of other technologies we’re working on as they mature.

- By David Murphy and Caitlin Clark, KAUST News