It sounds like something out of science fiction, but robots are quietly creeping into the electric industry. A recent report by analytics firm GlobalData finds the use of machines for difficult or dangerous tasks like inspections of high-voltage lines or nuclear facilities is growing.
Research is also under way on the potential for robots to assist electric utilities with other tasks. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is working with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee, on two separate projects focused on substation asset inspection and safety.
“Robotics technology is the next progression to augment safety and reliability in the utility industry,” says Christopher Burge, TVA senior program manager for grid research and development.
The goals include looking at how robots can autonomously navigate inside substations and what they can effectively monitor.
“A lot of research is focused on evaluating what sensors make sense for this application and how well they perform,” Burge says. “We’re investigating the potential of robots to be equipped with LIDAR, visual, thermal and ambient noise sensors.”
Robots could help electric utilities better manage system assets, but key to their value, Burge notes, is the return on investment they provide.
“That’s one of the things we’re really trying to determine,” he says.
That will require data from testing. The project with Tennessee Tech is in the preliminary design phase, Burge says, and a couple of years away from deploying a robot. But TVA and EPRI will also be investigating existing robots during that period.
Burge notes that robots are part of a trend toward using remotely controlled or automated technology, such as drones, for inspection and maintenance.
“Both drones and robots are here to help our personnel perform their jobs more efficiently, effectively and safely,” he says. “They’re probably going to be a key part of normal operations in the future.”