How is the energy sector using robots for inspections?


Energy sector infrastructure relies on regular inspections to ensure it continues to provide power to millions, and robots are helping to make that happen. Inspections and maintenance are often difficult and dangerous for human technicians. Robots allow energy sector facilities to perform more regular inspections without endangering their technicians. This reduces the cost of inspections and repairs and improves maintenance.

Using Drones for Visual Inspections

The energy sector uses a variety of robots for inspections, including airborne drones. These robots are well-suited for infrared inspections, where the drone skims over equipment from the air and remotely scans it. Drones are among the most commonly used inspection robots in the energy sector simply because they are versatile.

Drones can be found in a wide range of sizes and payload capacities. This makes it easy for energy sector facilities to find exactly the right robot based on their payload needs. They might want a normal digital camera attached to the drone for surface inspection. Likewise, they might want a set of sensors for detecting chemicals, heat, humidity, or other factors.

Drones can be customized to work with hundreds of different sensors and payloads, making them ideal for any non-contact inspections. The countless applications for drones in the energy sector go a long way toward improving employee safety and convenience. Something as simple as checking a damaged power line will be safer with a drone.

As the energy sector grows and adapts to renewable energy over the years ahead, drones will be invaluable for all sorts of inspections. For example, a new power plant site can be rapidly surveyed and inspected using a drone, perhaps with a LiDAR scanner or other topography measuring device. Similarly, drones are perfect for inspecting wind turbines, especially offshore facilities.

Climbing Robots for Utility Line Inspections

When it comes to physical inspections, the energy sector is adopting a unique type of climbing robot. Inspecting power lines poses a particularly high risk for technicians, between fall hazards and electrical hazards, but robots are changing that.

For example, one Quebec-based company has developed a robot called the “LineScout.” It hangs suspended from power lines by wheels it uses to travel along the line, performing remote inspections.

Similar to a drone, LineScout has cameras and infrared sensors that it uses for visual inspections. It can also clamp wires, measure resistance, and tighten bolts. While in action, the robot sends live video feedback to the ground so operators can monitor its performance in real-time.

LineScout is becoming popular in Canada. Technicians have found it particularly useful for inspecting utility lines that span large bodies of water. Using this robot, Canadian energy sector workers have been able to catch wire fraying before serious damage can occur. While LineScout does require human supervision, it saves energy sector facilities significant amounts of time and money and improves workplace safety for utility line technicians.

Making Repairs With Robotic Manipulation Systems

Sometimes inspections and maintenance require hands-on attention. This is where robotic manipulation systems come in. This type of robot may be more complex to develop and utilize than a commercial drone, but robotic manipulators can be extremely useful in the energy sector.

These robots often come in the form of an arm with end-of-arm tooling specific to its job. Robotic manipulation systems will usually have multiple joints to promote flexibility, which allows them to fit into tight spaces and work with greater precision. Robotic manipulation systems are usually remote-controlled by a technician rather than autonomous.

For example, a technician might use a robotic manipulator with a dexterous gripper to perform a repair in a hazardous part of a facility. Robotic manipulators often have cameras mounted on them, allowing for off-site or remote monitoring.

Perhaps the most famous robotic manipulation system is the Canadarm on the International Space Station, used during NASA’s space shuttle missions. This robotic arm displays the versatility of robotic manipulation systems, much like that of drones.

While the Candarm is significantly larger than most robotic manipulators used in the energy sector would be, it sparked innovation in robotic arm technology that was key to creating today’s robotic manipulators.

Getting Assistance From the IoT

Advanced sensors often complement robotic inspection devices. The Internet of Things, or IoT, is the growing network of connected devices, such as smart sensors or even everyday smart light bulbs. The adoption of IoT sensors is growing across numerous industries, especially for data collection and maintenance applications.

In the energy sector, IoT sensors are helping robots perform better and improving equipment and facility maintenance. In fact, with IoT tech, some types of inspections can be conducted entirely remotely and autonomously. Unlike a conventional sensor, an IoT sensor can continuously report data back to a hub where it can be analyzed in real-time. This is great for conducting quick remote inspections but can also reveal long-term maintenance and performance insights.

For example, the manufacturing industry is adopting IoT sensors extensively, with one of the top applications being predictive maintenance. Since IoT sensors are constantly collecting data, it is easy to track performance over time, indicating something like a slowly declining piece of equipment. This allows technicians to repair or replace parts before a serious break. The same technology can even be used to keep an eye on inspection robots to optimize maintenance for these valuable pieces of equipment.

Robots and the Future of the Energy Sector

The energy sector uses robots to make inspections safer, smarter, and faster. Robots are completely transforming the inspection process and improving maintenance throughout the industry. Adopting robotics can allow energy sector businesses to reduce maintenance costs, conduct more consistent inspections, and improve the employee experience.

With the help of other emerging technologies, such as IoT devices, energy sector facilities can streamline operations and optimize inspections. As an added bonus, an increase in cutting-edge technology will help attract skilled young professionals and technicians to energy sector careers, where they will be instrumental in powering the future. Robots will be crucial to growth and innovation as the energy sector evolves.

About the author:

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine celebrating innovations in industry, science, and technology. Subscribe to our newsletter for industry updates.