Robotics is proving itself a revolutionary technology across a range of industries and when it comes to robots in asset maintenance it could be said that it is having some of the biggest impacts right now. Essential public infrastructures services such as water, transport, and power, are among those industries seeing tremendous benefits from the uptake of robotics in asset maintenance tasks.
In what ways are automation improving processes in asset maintenance?
Worker safety is the principal reason why robots are being introduced for maintenance tasks in these industries. By reducing exposure to dangerous conditions and automating repetitive tasks that can lead to repetitive strain injuries in workers, robots promise to reduce the number of workplace accidents and injuries.
From the worker’s perspective, a safer working environment has obvious benefits, while for employers, fewer incidents mean a more active workforce with less downtime for recovery, and – of course – less possibility of personal injury claims!
This does not mean that human workers will be replaced, as we will see as we talk about examples of robotics in action. Rather, workers will be removed from hazardous tasks and work in collaboration with the robots from a safe distance.
Streamlining operations and improving the time-efficiency of necessary asset maintenance tasks, performing tasks quicker and without the possibility of human error, equates to significant cost savings across the board. Robots can work long shifts, need no breaks, do not tire, get sick, or require holidays; difficult tasks which may have taken humans a long time to complete can be executed by a robot in minimal time.
Growing infrastructure requirements are already putting the strain on the transport and utilities sectors, so the need to streamline operations and reduce disruption to services is an even more important factor than cost-saving. Pressure to deliver flawless service to more customers would take its toll on a purely human workforce. Again, robots in asset maintenance come to the rescue.
How are robots being used in asset maintenance?
Robots in Electricity Generation & Transmission
Power lines and towers cover vast areas and require regular inspection. The time it takes for human workers to perform asset maintenance inspection and maintenance tasks across a territory is costly and inefficient, not to mention perilous for the workers themselves. In the United States, UAVs (airborne drones), equipped with the necessary tools for maintenance tasks, are being used to improve efficiency, worker safety, and performance of energy transmission.
Controlled by a human operator on the ground, drones can transmit live HD video and infrared data. The operator can thus identify problems without the need to scale the structures themselves. Manual inspection typically takes weeks, sometimes months, meaning that regular inspections are spaced out over time. UAVs, however, can allow daily reporting, allowing problems to be detected quickly and fixed early. With UAVs, inspections can also be completed without any interruption to a power supply.
General Electric uses robotsin a different inspection capacity. Its ASSET platform is used to inspect large surfaces, such as tank walls and floors. It is operated remotely and can navigate following predefined scan paths or move freely within a space. ASSET performs visual and ultrasonic inspections, uses a rotating laser range finder for tank floors, and can scale even vast structures. The inspection worker now operates and observes the robot’s movements and findings without the need to place themselves in a hazardous physical environment, while more in-depth data and the ability to perform more regular, detailed inspections increases the value of the asset maintenance task.
Finally, there’s the example of Avitas Systems, who use predictive analytics combined with crawling and aerial drones to perform platform inspections on oil, gas, power, and transportation assets. Sensors on the robots feed data back to the analytics platform which can then predict when maintenance will be necessary.
Robots in Water Asset Maintenance
A research project currently being undertaken at Sheffield University is investigating how robotic swarms equipped with sensors can be used to inspect subterranean water pipes without surface disruption. Surface disruption is not only a nuisance for motorists and the general public, but it is also a costly and time-intensive task that can involve hazards for human workers. Without access to the inside of pipes, it is challenging to assess how they are performing – and often it is not until something goes wrong that a problem is identified.
What the research team propose is autonomous robotic systems working directly within the pipes, assessing the conditions of the tube and performing maintenance work themselves. The research is, however, a long-term project, and as no such technology is currently in circulation, so R&D is ongoing.
In the meantime, Pure Roboticshas a solution for water pipe inspection which is already being used in situ. The robotic crawler can transport sensors and tools through pipes, whether dewatered or submerged in water. The robot feeds live video back to remote operators to assess conditions of sewerage and other water networks. It can adapt to an array of different pipe conditions, is fast and easy to use, and requires no human workers to enter the pipes at all.
Robots in Transportation Maintenance
Increased demand for train services means that there are fewer opportunities for maintenance operations on rail networks. Disruption, as we all know, needs to be minimised, not least because an efficient train network has the potential to improve worker productivity exponentially where commuters can reach work on time!
Without adequate opportunities for maintenance, concerns about network degradationweigh heavy on Network Rail’s mind. The need to understand the condition of assets so that maintenance can be planned and performed in a timely and efficient manner is a key issue. Autonomous systems to monitor networks gather data for analysis, and the use of machine learning to determine trends in asset risk, needs to be implemented to optimise inspection and maintenance to reduce disruption and deliver a positively evolving an efficient rail network.
In aerospace engineering, Boeing was an early adopter of robots for painting its aircraft and is now using robots widely across its production and maintenance lines.
Aeroplanes require significant maintenance to ensure that they remain safe and serviceable. The inspection and maintenance tasks previously undertaken by human workers posed risks, less from accidents than from injuries sustained as a result of ergonomic challenges. Repetitive stress injuries are common, which has a knock-on effect on productivity and quality of maintenance performance. Collaborating with robots from a safe distance, increasing the variety of tasks in the human worker’s repertoire improves both safety and morale.
A Laser-Coating Removal Robot (LCR) byLR Systems is justone of many examples of robots used in aerospace asset maintenance. The fifty-foot tall structure reaches 90 feet into the air and can remove coatings, repaint aircraft, and ultimately perform a thorough inspection of the vehicle’s exterior. Previously, chemical removers, sand-blasting or plastic media blasting were used to remove paint and coatings from aircraft. These practices, however, were both costly and produced large volumes of hazardous waste and emissions. New requirements and aircraft designs mean these old processes are no longer desirable. The laser in the LCR evaporates and combusts paint, while the paint effluent is immediately vacuumed directly from the surface and passed through a filtration system. The robot boasts a 50% reduction in processing time, compared with previous systems, and a 90% reduction in labour.
How will the trend towards robots in asset maintenance continue?
As infrastructure demand grow, keeping up with the changes necessary to provide acceptable service to the population will continue to place pressure on industries such as those discussed here. Disruption in a demanding world is becoming less and less acceptable, so we can only expect the tide of automation to swell. Where technology offers the potential to optimise systems and processes, to provide safer working environments, save cost and time, and to deliver better services, it should undoubtedly be used.
The importance of data is also not to be overlooked. Data is now King, touching almost every aspect of how industries function. Again, this data must be used to its maximum potential. Just as we should expect human workers to collaborate with robots increasingly, so too will we find robots increasingly delivering the valuable data needed to improve further the systems and processes required for a smooth-running infrastructure. Collaboration between humans, robots, and machine learning systems is the new norm, and we will soon wonder wryly how we ever functioned any other way.