Suncor takes a deep dive into automation with robotic tank inspections

worker in full personal protective equipment holding the handle of the rimouski robot standing in a dirt path

Regular check-ups at the doctor are an important part of our overall well-being. The same applies to inspecting our operating assets, including product storage tanks at Suncor’s refineries, terminals and oil sands operations. 

We conduct regular tank inspections to make sure they operate safely and as designed, so we can maximize their number of years in operation. Proper tank inspections take time and resources, which is why we’re excited to have a new, safe and efficient way of conducting inspections with a small robot.

After months of planning, a team of people from across Suncor sent a robot roughly the size of a shoebox into two diesel tanks at the Rimouski Terminal in Rimouski, Quebec. The robot enabled the team to virtually inspect the 10-foot diameter tank floors in approximately two hours each, which allowed up to the 15,000 data points per tank that could be statistically analyzed.  

“Getting to the point of using the robot for the tank inspections was no small feat – it was a collaborative effort that took a large integrated team to bring to life,” says Tim Alleyne, Reliability Specialist, Eastern Region. “People are very passionate about making reliability improvements and about improving safety wherever possible.”

The purpose of the pilot was to find a way to reduce risk to workers, keep tanks in top shape, reduce the amount of out-of-service time and possibly open the door to more inspections aided by robots across Suncor’s operations. Tim says the team chose to pilot the robot at Rimouski’s diesel tanks since they are smaller compared to other product tanks and diesel is a combustible material. 

Tank inspections mean confined space entry, which comes with its own safety risks. That’s why limiting this type of work to robots may be a big step forward in process safety and loss of primary containment. It also ensures business continuity and keeps costs down when the tanks don’t need to be taken out of service for inspections.

“The use of advanced inspection technologies for on-stream tank floor inspections, amongst others, has opened new and exciting ways of how we do inspections in Suncor. These technologies not only minimize risk to our operations, maintenance, and inspection personnel, but also deliver significant cost savings and increase the availability of our equipment,” says Duane Serate, Engineering Advisor.  

The robot approach also has the potential to be used in outages and will be helpful for forecasting repairs on assets. It can be used to add confidence on the rate of corrosion calculated from previous inspections.