Robots are transforming the utility industry by improving safety and powering more efficient maintenance. Today’s thriving utility robotics field powers innovation in everything from pipe inspection to solar panel cleaning. How are robots strengthening power distribution and building grid resilience?
Over the past few years, utility robotics development has boomed. There are a growing number of robots on the market today designed specifically for the utility industry. They can do everything from inspecting power lines to crawling through pipes and monitoring power stations. Here’s a look at a few real-world robots helping out utilities professionals.
Inspecting power lines is a complex and dangerous part of maintaining power distribution systems. Contact with overhead power lines causes 45.7% of electrical workplace fatalities today. With robots, utility workers can reduce the life-threatening risks associated with power line inspections.
Engineers have developed power line crawler robots that roll along power lines with pulley-like wheels. The robots have cameras and sensors on board that allow remote operators to inspect the power lines from a safe distance.
One such robot is the LineRanger, developed by Canadian utility company Hydro-Quebec. The LineRanger can safely inspect numerous miles of extra-high-voltage power lines on a single charge.
It can even use sensors to detect conductivity, corrosion and heat points, all of which can hint at maintenance issues. Utility workers can visually inspect power lines remotely using cameras built into the LineRanger.
The sheer size of power stations can make them challenging to monitor. Conventional monitoring strategies include security cameras and inspections on foot. Both tactics are inefficient for 24/7 rapid-response monitoring, though. With drones, power station employees can get a bird’s eye view of the entire facility and inspect infrastructure up close if necessary.
Aerial drones are ideal for inspecting and monitoring power stations since they can provide a view of pylons without climbing. In the past, power station employees would have to climb or use a crane to inspect and repair the tall pylons that support power lines. This includes a high risk of falls and electrical accidents.
Drones empower station workers to do comprehensive inspections remotely. It’s quicker, easier and safer than doing a visual pylon inspection in person. Plus, the aerial view from the drones can help spot trespassers, accidents, broken equipment and other power station activity.
Pipes aren’t the only utility infrastructure going underground. Burying power lines can improve grid resilience by protecting them from hazards like fires or falling trees. This is particularly important in areas like California and Canada, where wildfires threaten electrical infrastructure.
Burying utilities requires an efficient way to dig underground. Tunneling robots are helping out by automating that process. For example, California-based robotics developer Petra is engineering compact tunnel-boring robots for the utilities industry. The robots use a special thermal drilling technology to cut through highly durable terrain, such as bedrock.
Drilling robots like those in development at Petra simplify underground utility installation. They remove the need for trenches, which are dangerous to work in. Automated drilling also makes underground utilities cheaper and easier to install. This helps cost-effectively build grid resilience.
Detailed inspections are one of the downsides of underground utilities. When pipes are buried, it becomes more difficult to detect leaks, cracks and other maintenance issues. Reviews can require digging up whole sections of pipes. This is messy, expensive and can even lead to injuries.
Luckily, robots are helping utility workers inspect underground infrastructure safely. A great example is Pipe Trekker, a pipe crawler robot developed by Canada-based Deep Trekker. This waterproof robot can crawl through pipes, capturing live video from inside. Above ground, report operators can watch the footage live.
This allows utility workers to inspect whole networks of pipes without any digging. Robots like Pipe Trekker could prevent pipeline industry injuries and save time, money and resources. With more frequent robotic inspections, pipeline maintenance issues can be detected sooner. This leads to higher-quality utility maintenance.
Renewable energy is crucial for ensuring long-term power grid resilience. So, utility providers need efficient solutions for maintaining clean energy infrastructure. One of the most common challenges they face is keeping solar panels clean. Robotics developers are already hard at work solving this problem.
For example, Israel-based robotics developer BladeRanger invented a solar panel cleaning robot with a partner drone. The drone can pick up the robot and carry it between sections of solar panels. This allows the entire cleaning process to be automated.
Solar power generation plants can also use drones to monitor their large arrays of PV panels. A small all-terrain drone like the InspectorBots Minibot can drive around the grass and dirt fields surrounding solar panels. With a moving camera, remote operators can visually inspect the PV panels. This removes the need for hours-long inspections on foot.
What are the benefits of using robots in the electrical utility industry? Robots can revolutionize grid maintenance, helping prevent outages and workplace accidents.
Improved utility worker safety is one of the top benefits of robots in power grid maintenance. Unfortunately, working with electrical infrastructure can be a hazardous profession.
Electricians get extensive training, but accidents can still happen. By using robots to automate many hands-on tasks, utility workers can reduce the risk of electrocution and injuries.
The U.S. power grid includes 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, plus millions of miles of additional low-voltage power lines. Maintaining that much power infrastructure is no small feat. Inspecting and monitoring power grid infrastructure is critical but often inefficient and time consuming.
Robots make grid monitoring and inspections quicker and easier — particularly for underground utilities. Thanks to tech like pipe crawler robots, buried utilities can now be inspected without digging them up.
When power grid infrastructure is quick and easy to inspect, utility workers can conduct inspections more often. The result is higher quality grid maintenance due to more responsive monitoring.
Robots allow utility workers to spot anomalies sooner, stopping large, dangerous repair needs. Fast incident response can even prevent power outages. With the help of robots, utility workers can safely take better care of the growing power grid.
Robots are revolutionizing the utility industry, improving safety and maintenance. Automating dangerous tasks like power line inspection improves working conditions for utilities employees. With a hand from robots, the utility industry is making stronger, safer and better-maintained power grid.