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Surrey takes first step towards ‘industrial sixth sense’ with £1m project

Funded by EPSRC, a new £1m project at the University of Surrey aims to develop technology which enables companies to ‘see into the future’ in order to prevent industrial disasters.

The three-year project has been awarded to a single institution – Surrey – because of its unique combination of expertise in process system engineering, robotics and wireless communications. Led by Surrey’s Centre for Connected Plants of the Future within the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering, it will involve collaboration with Surrey Space Centre (SSC) and the 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC), as well as high profile industry partners including Petrofac, IBM, Honeywell, Fluor, Sellafield and National Nuclear Laboratory, on an intelligent modelling, sensor network and data processing system.

The research team is led by Professor Sai Gu, Head of the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering, and includes Professor Harvey Arellano-Garcia (Department of Chemical and Process Engineering),  Professor Pei Xiao (5GIC) and Professor Yang Gao (SSC).

The team will develop the world’s first industrial ‘sixth sense’ technology which enables industrial plants to predict what will happen based on an intelligent modelling sensor network and data processing system. As part of the project, the technology will be demonstrated at Surrey’s new chemical engineering pilot plant.

Currently, industrial plants monitor processes as they happen using measurements which equate to a human’s five senses: hearing with acoustic sensors, smelling with gas and liquid sensors, seeing with cameras, touching with vibration sensors, and tasting with composition sensors. The ‘sixth sense’ technology being developed in this project will be a self-adaptive and self-repairing sensing network capable of carrying out deep thinking analysis based on even limited data, and using it to generate a vision of the future.

This technology will help industries to prevent or greatly reduce the extent of catastrophic disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which caused huge levels of financial and environmental devastation. While the project’s initial focus is the oil and gas and nuclear industries, the technologies being developed will be suitable for a huge range of sectors such as manufacturing, food and pharmaceuticals.

Professor Sai Gu said: “Often major accidents begin with very small equipment failures, while human error also plays a part in many disasters. The solution is to put in place technological systems which can overcome the potential for human error and predict the chain of events before it happens.

“The sixth sense is a completely new area of research, and the University of Surrey is uniquely placed to develop this technology. The innovation from research like this could lead us in a number of new directions as it develops; for example cyber security will become a very important issue when industrial plants are truly connected.”

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