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Robonaut lands in Perth

Woodside looking to use NASA technology to improve its own operations

NASA’s anthropomorphic Robonaut system has touched down in Perth, Western Australia, as part of a five-year collaboration with oil and gas giant Woodside Petroleum.

The Robonaut was unveiled at a press conference on Friday at Woodside’s headquarters where it will remain on loan from NASA for the next 60 months.

Woodside chief technology officer Shaun Gregory said the partnership with NASA represented an opportunity to accelerate Woodside’s own cognitive science programme.

“As part of the project, Woodside will research ways in which the Robonaut could perform tasks from more than 300 ideas suggested by the company’s operators, engineers and maintenance workers,” he said.

“Those ideas include performing high risk tasks such as high voltage switching, first responder to alarms on our unmanned platforms or spoken work instructions to complement written manuals and procedures.”

Robonaut was designed and built at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and is already used by NASA for simple, repetitive, or especially dangerous tasks in places such as the International Space Station.

Woodside sent a team to Houston for three weeks ahead of the Robonauts' arrival in Perth last week to learn NASA’s platform and integrate it with its own artificial intelligence platform.

Artificial intelligence software allows Robonaut to “think” for itself, with the robot being able to be given a simple task and perform it and it can learn new tasks.

The robot still requires human input on which tasks it needs to carry out but it will not need to be controlled remotely through the entire process and can carry out the task independently.

Robonaut will remain in Woodside's offices in Perth but the knowledge it learns is transferable and Gregory hopes to have a prototype robot performing tasks out in the field soon.

“We will look to deploy some kind of prototype out into the field, that won’t be Robonaut, before the end of the year,” he said.

That prototype will initially be deployed at Woodside’s onshore operations in Karratha at its operated gas plants but the company hopes to eventually use the technology in its offshore operations.

“We are looking for ways we can use robotics to reduce risk for our workforce and help us perform a wide range of tasks that complement activities carried out by our people,” Gregory said.

One example Gregory used for the potential use of robotic workers was on unmanned platforms, such as Woodside’s Pluto riser platform off Western Australia.

“If anything goes wrong we have to get people onto a helicopter to go and land there to sometimes just turn a valve and that is a use case that a robot could take care of,” he added.

Currently when a sensor is set off on an unmanned platform Woodside needs to deploy at least four people in a helicopter and fly them hundreds of kilometres offshore to investigate.

Having a robot on the platform would allow the incident to be investigated further and potentially fix the problem without the need to deploy staff.

While Woodside is using the Robonaut to improve its operations here on Earth, NASA is also set to benefit from the collaboration project with the Australian company.

Gregory noted NASA engineers had already highlighted use cases which will be transferrable between Woodside’s operations and the space agency’s own.

For example, Woodside will teach the Robonaut to turn a valve which the NASA engineers said would translate to turning an airlock on the International Space Station.

“So it’s those transferred learnings, the remote operations that they have looked to Woodside for as they step to go first the moon and then to Mars,” Gregory said.