With the help of robots, industrial inspections are becoming safer, smarter, and more efficient. Innovative robotic technologies like AI, computer vision, and machine learning are transforming the industrial inspection process.
These new inspection approaches are applications in various industrial fields, from energy to manufacturing. There are many benefits driving automation in industrial inspections, but a few, in particular, stand out.
Reducing Exposure to Inspection Hazards
The prime benefit of robots for industrial inspections is reduced exposure to hazards for employees. Robots are capable of enduring many kinds of environments that can be highly dangerous or stressful for people. The unsafe nature of such environments naturally makes it more difficult to conduct inspections – costing more time, money, and resources. Plus, there is always the risk of an inspection employee getting hurt, bringing injury expenses.
Robots provide an intuitive solution to these challenges. There are robots today built for virtually any environment imaginable. Deploying a robot for hazardous industrial inspections requires fewer safety precautions, fewer safety-related expenses, and much less time. Employees can remotely pilot an inspection robot from the safety of an office, or an autonomous AI-guided robot can inspect without employees’ help.
A great example of this technology at work is industrial robots being used for underwater inspections on oil rigs. Underwater inspections are among the most challenging around. They can require expensive SCUBA training, expertise, and equipment – and working underwater is highly dangerous. Using a robot for oil rig inspections is a no-brainer.
Several robots have been developed for this purpose. They usually consist of a camera mounted on a propulsion system. Robotic grippers, claws, or arms are also frequently included. These conveniently allow for dexterous maneuvering underwater and even allow the robot to conduct certain types of repairs.
Another great example of robots protecting humans in industrial inspections can be found at the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A 2011 accident at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, resulted in extreme physical and radiation damage to the site.
It is no longer safe for humans to traverse, but engineers have developed robots that can withstand the extreme environment. These robots collect reconnaissance data and footage instrumental in the efforts to clean up and heal the area damaged by the nuclear disaster.
Optimizing the Inspection Process
Removing employees entirely from hazardous inspection areas is the first step. The industrial inspection process is even safer when properly optimized. Inspections naturally involve poking around in machinery or areas that can be delicate or sensitive to downtime. Robots can conduct inspections with speed and precision without compromising inspection quality, resulting in safer inspections.
For instance, robots are being used to inspect areas like mines and construction sites. These places are hazardous but not necessarily deadly. Human personnel often inspect them safely, but the process can move much faster with a robot assigned instead.
One of the most innovative robots developed for this task is the Spot robot from Boston Dynamics. The Colorado School of Mines conducted a research project to test the Spot robot’s effectiveness for mine inspections.
With a robot like this, mine operators can run fully autonomous inspections. The robot can navigate rough terrain with ease, even in dark conditions. It can be equipped with various sensors or cameras, so industrial inspections can include various data types. Plus, AI-powered cameras can autonomously scan the robot’s surroundings and detect anything out of the ordinary.
Even if a mining or construction team wanted to conduct their inspections via remote control rather than full automation, the process would still be faster with a robot. Humans must watch their steps and pay attention to many factors in risky environments.
In contrast, a robot can’t be distracted or underperform due to natural feelings of fear, worry, or nervousness. The AI in the robot can rapidly and accurately take in large amounts of data at once, even in adverse conditions. This results in a fast, efficient inspection process that doesn’t compromise detail or accuracy, creating an overall safer environment.
Robots have proven so effective for autonomous inspections like this that NASA is developing AI drones to inspect underground tunnels on Mars.
Close-Up and Detailed Inspections
Many types of inspections are dangerous on a smaller scale and often more difficult. One example is inspections for pipe assemblies or machinery where an inspector would need to work in a cramped space with numerous elements that could cause injury.
These detail-focused, mechanical industrial inspections may not necessarily be life-threatening, but they still have their dangers. Even a seemingly minor danger like a pinch point can cause serious physical harm, potentially leading to broken bones or amputation. These can also be highly complex spaces, demanding keen attention to detail to ensure a successful inspection.
Applying robots to cramped, high-detail inspections allows for more precise inspections without the risk of injury. As mentioned above, one of the great benefits of using robots for inspections is the consistent, uninterrupted focus a robot can deliver. The robot will not be distracted by any potential dangers around it. Using computer vision can detect these dangers, avoid them, and carry on.
Robotic claws can be used rather than delicate hands and fingers. AI-powered cameras and sensors can be used for completely contact-free inspections. These inspection robots can often catch small details the human eye might miss and possibly even predict future maintenance issues to prepare for.
Types of Industrial Inspection Robots
There are many different types of industrial robots that can be used to conduct inspections in a variety of environments. Choosing the right one is about identifying the conditions the robot needs to stand up to and the task it must perform.
A robot with a claw will be ideal if the industrial inspection requires manipulating objects such as tools or levers. If it needs to go over rough terrain, it will need durable wheels or even wings. These are a few main types of robots that can be used for industrial inspections today.
1. Airborne Drones
Perhaps the most widely used robot today is the airborne drone. There are thousands of drones on the market, ranging from mini quadcopters that can fit in one hand to large, industrial-grade specialized drones.
This robot is ideal for inspections that can be conducted completely visually in environments where dust and dirt are not a problem (the drone’s propellers will kick up large amounts of particulate matter in closed, dusty spaces).
2. Underwater Robots
Underwater robots are a unique, varied category. Some are like mini submarines with a simple propulsion system and a camera. Others are large, humanoid robots with multiple robotic arms. These robots are perfect for conducting underwater inspections in all aquatic conditions, from underwater drilling rigs to wastewater treatment plants.
Rovers are the classic all-terrain robots. These robots have wheels or treads that they use to get around. Some are made for rough outdoor environments, while others are designed for less-hostile indoor environments. Both types can be highly useful for conducting industrial inspections. There is a lot of variety in this category, making it a good all-purpose place to start.
4. Robotic Arms
Some types of industrial inspections don’t require high amounts of movement. The inspection can generally be done in a stationary position. A robotic arm is often perfect for these types of situations. The arm can be remote controlled by an operator at a safe distance. Cameras and robotic claws can be mounted on these arms, allowing for a lot of versatility.
5. Walking Robots
Finally, today’s most cutting-edge type of industrial robot is walking robots. It is extremely difficult to design a robot that can walk on multiple legs successfully, let alone do so in adverse conditions. The current industry leader in this category is Boston Dynamics. The company’s Spot, as mentioned above, has proven extremely effective in all sorts of environments, including mines and rough terrain.
Next-Gen Industrial Inspection Technology
Robots are transforming the way businesses conduct industrial inspections. With the help of a growing range of innovative robots, industrial inspections can be safer, more efficient, and more effective. Robots allow precise AI inspections using cutting-edge technologies like computer vision and autonomous navigation. With the help of these robots, industrial inspections can be safer in any environment, from underwater to underground mines to high in the air.