South32 rolls out remote visual inspection technology

A Western Australian alumina operation has proven that radical changes can be made through robotic technology.

South32 has introduced a robot, known as the Bike platform, at its Worsley Alumina operation in Western Australia.

The Bike platform has played a part in making sure workers go home well and safe at the end of the day by preventing higher risk tasks that were traditionally done by people working in confined spaces and at heights.

As of November 2018, a total 105 confined space entries and 190 working at height activities, including scaffolding and from ropes, have been prevented by the introduction of remote visual inspection (RVI) technology.

The Bike platform was developed by General Electric (GE) as a mobile inspection robot. One of its standout attributes is the ability to reach locations with poor human access due to size constraints, temperature, immersion in liquids or other safety reasons.

The technology also has the ability to climb complex structures, passing convex and concave obstacles and performing testing tasks through a 300-millimetre man-way. It is equipped with two integrated navigation cameras that can take pictures for reporting.

South32’s product owner for sensing and robotics Brenton Rowe says, “We kicked off an initiative 18 months ago to bring technology to site to remove people from higher risk working environments. The Bike platform is one part of South32’s RVI technology.”

The Bike platform is joined by drones, remote camera systems and other robotic crawlers on-site.

Worsley Alumina has hundreds of tanks, vessels, piping and major shutdown equipment, where working in confined space environments and at heights is required to perform inspections. The Bike platform, with its magnetic wheel and traction systems, is one element of the company’s toolkit to achieve remote inspection capability across all equipment.

“We are constantly on the lookout for new RVI technology that delivers on the objective of improving safety and increasing efficiency,” Rowe says.

In delivering this remote inspection service, South32 has dedicated a team to the operation of drones, camera systems and other robotics around the site.

“Our chief remote visual inspection specialist on-site comes from a rope access background,” says Rowe.

Challenges turn into opportunities

The focus lies not on having the biggest and best thing in technology, but to use technology and innovation to improve safety and operational performance.

In the 2018 financial year, South32 reported a 15 per cent improvement in its total recordable injury frequency (TRIF) to 5.12 per million hours worked across its operations, a reduction on the 6.05 per million hours worked in 2017.

“The technology is available. The biggest challenge is getting people on board to come along for the journey,” says Rowe.

“We’ve done that successfully through regular communication across the business, demonstrating the business benefits and celebrating the success of using RVI technology.”

The team showcases its products on a routine basis to demonstrate the value of technology, thereby removing any barriers for people to see how the initiatives benefit the company.

When asked about future plans, Rowe says South32 is working toward developing remote nondestructive testing capability, by which material wear and cracks can be detected remotely.

“The Bike platform is a small part of our available technology to deliver the outcome of keeping people safe and making work more efficient,” says Rowe.

“It’s about getting the right tools and creating the outcome of being able to do work remotely.”

This article appears in the Jan-Mar 2019 edition of Safe to Work.