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How are utilities using robots?

Carlos Sousa's picture
Specialist CEMIG

I worked in project management and environmental programs, asset management, maintenance and management in integrated electricity company (generation, transmission, distribution and commercialization)

  • Member since 2019
  • 42 items added with 6,266 views
  • Feb 22, 2021

I would like to know how utilities are using robots and exoskeletons to reduce risk and increase productivity in the construction, operation and maintenance of the grid.
Do you know any electric power companies (generation, transmission and distribution) that are using or researching the use of robots and exoskeletons to improve the activities of workers and reduce their contact with electrical risk?

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Very timely question, especially since use of some robots to test allegedly plugged gas lines and frozen instrumentation  during the Texas grid crisis could have helped make a better, more accurate assessment.

Energy assets are large, expensive, remotely situated; some of them are critical for operations and when damage occurs a real threat to safety and of course human lives. 

By far the most extensive use of robots arose from the nuclear accident at Fukushima (I had the good fortune to visit the facility and provide training to personnel on instrument calibration about 5 years before the tsunami accident.)  After the accident in 2011, engineers had to make many quick assessments: what was the state of the uranium fuel rods after the accident and can they be recovered? what were the states of many vital instrumentation that were essential to monitor post-accident scenarios. TEPCO engineers developed a robot called The Sunfish which was able to determine the state of the plant with some success. Other nuclear plant applications under normal conditions include: providing exoskeleton robots to perform some routine human functions in a radiation-intensive environment. Human beings are restricted to no more than a few minutes per quarter (3 months). Performance of certain machining functions require accurate measurement of available space: robots could assist in making these measurements prior to these operations and minimize radiation exposure.

Drones are valuable assets today for inspecting transmission lines for insulator damage, conductor damage to assess efficiency. These damages are usually very small and very difficult to assess from the ground. Drones are expected to see more usage as they may be expected to carry more payloads: not just cameras but even inspection and maintenance tools.Utility innovations extend to uses of drones for damage assessment. FPL, for example, has installed two unmanned aircraft in structures designed to withstand winds of up to 150 mph. The drones are pre-programmed to capture images of certain equipment two miles past an operator's line of sight. Innovations in remote operations put in place to manage assets during extreme weather conditions will surely be expanded and refined for the larger challenges further down the road in combating climate change.

Carlos Sousa's picture
Carlos Sousa on Mar 5, 2021

There are many applications, mainly, as you said, to reduce the risky condition of workers.

Wow, how are they not?

-transformer internal inspection, boiler inspection, boiler repair, safety inspection of steam pipes, stack inspection

-Pole inspection, conductor inspection, conductor repair, underground duct inspection, underground splicing, finding underground faults, boring, gas pipeline welding, line tensioning, substation inspection, intrusion monitoring and response. 

Probably 100 different uses have been in the news in the last 3 or 4 years. Roughly 30 labs are working on new applications. 

The focus is on really hazardous work and hard for a human to do jobs right now. 

The grid still needs (and will need for at least the foreseeable future talented engineers and lineworkers to keep it running, but some of the jobs people hate to do, will move to robots. 

Carlos Sousa's picture
Carlos Sousa on Feb 25, 2021

I think the goal is to increasingly use automation and robots to mitigate the risk of accidents with our workers.
Would you have any reference to the uses and laboratories that are developing these solutions?
Best regards

Jimmy Carter's picture
Jimmy Carter on Mar 2, 2021

As an inspection provider, I can tell you that there are dozen (actually way more) utilities on both their T&D and their Generation assets that are using some form of drones, robotics, crawlers and submersibles to inspection critical infrastructure.

I cannot address your exoskeleton comment because that is not in my wheelhouse, but drone, crawlers and submersibles are used inside and outside of generating facilities to reduce the risk to personnel, whether heat, radiological, liquid, confined spaces, etc.  As for production I can tell you my customers enjoy up to 75% efficiencies from using a drone to inspection inside confined spaces as opposed to the customer building scaffolds to access these areas, not to mention the fact that the hazard of working in these areas are mitigated.

As for other non-generation infrastructure (AKA the grid), we use drones to inspect utility poles at a more efficient and reliable pace, identifying material condition defects that just cant be seen from the ground.  For transmission, our drones coupled with our subject matter experts, can use technology to perform vegetation management assessments to ensure trees, brush and growth are not taking out key lines and feeders.


The list is endless.  To see some examples of what I mentioned, check out

Carlos Sousa's picture
Carlos Sousa on Mar 5, 2021

Dear Jimi, thanks for the testimonial.
What else can you share with us about the use of automation, drones and other solutions for carrying out activities in the scope of electricity generation, transmission and distribution?

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