Faced with aging infrastructure and a labor shortage as well as a desire to improve safety, utilities are looking at robots to complete a wide range of tasks previously assigned to humans.
The level of autonomy in a robot or drone varies considerably by application. Some, but not all machines will have an element of operator intervention. With the use of artificial intelligence for machine learning, algorithms are created so robots can respond to new data. You many not think of a drone as a robot but these are the most widely used robots in the utility sector.
Kronos Utility Group expands drone applications beyond surveying and inspection
Kronos Utility Group has developed a wide range of applications for drones among utilities ranging from installation of a KADDAS Bird Guard system to pulling socks (thread leading wire ropes) with drones and completing maintenance tasks such as isolator washing. These are in addition to more routine tasks such as visual surveys, predictive maintenance and marker ball installation.
“Most tasks can be planned ahead and are flown manually on a pre-planned flight plan with adjustments based on the findings during the flight and as the surrounding environment changes,” says Ravid Barash, Marketing Manager for Kronos Utility. “Tasks that are repeated often such as surveys can be done autonomously.”
Barash believes the driving forces behind the use of drones in the utility industry are efficiency, safety, and sustainability. Drones swiftly execute tasks, reducing costs and the need for extensive manual labor that can be pivoted to other important tasks. Drones are able to inspect at heights and within unreachable and confined spaces while keeping employees out of harms way.
Advanced sensors will also lead to more applications for flying robots. “In the next three to five years utility drones will incorporate more advanced sensors, such as lidar (Light Detection and Ranging), multi-spectral cameras, and various kinds of detectors, to enhance their ability to assess infrastructure conditions, detect leaks, and monitor environmental parameters,” says Barash.
ROCK Robotic offers low-cost lidar for vegetation management and more
Lidar sensors mounted on drones enable utilities to capture highly detailed and accurate data on vegetation growth around distribution and transmission corridors. Noah Carr, Owner of ROCK Robotic, says that the high cost of lidar systems (typically close to $200,000) has been a limiting factor, especially for smaller utilities. By comparison the cost of the ROCK Robotic solution which includes the R3 Pro hardware and software for lidar and photogrammetry data processing ranges between $30,000 and $50,000.
“The main draw of lidar is accuracy,” says Noah Carr. The R3 Pro delivers + or -3-centimeter accuracy. Using light to measure distance, lidar is able to sample points extremely quickly — up to 1.3 million data points per second. “What would have taken days to survey can be flown in 20 minutes,” says Carr. “You save time money, and it’s safer than helicopters.”
The R3 hardware also offers versatility because it can be used both on land (handheld or mounted on a vehicle) and in the air (mounted on drones). ROCK SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) allows for scanning in GPS denied environments.
SkySkopes’ SORV reduces the cost of linear inspections
Ian Hatfield, Vice President of SkySkopes Utility Solutions is intent on getting utilities to change their focus from reactive maintenance to planned maintenance in a goal to reduce overall costs and improve reliability. SkySkopes provides a variety of inspection services to utilities and has developed some proprietary technologies, that include robotics and automation. To accomplish this SkySkopes recently showcased the newest version of the System Overhead Reliability Vehicle or SORV, at The Utility Expo.
The inspection vehicle is outfitted with high-end mobile lidar, and can include thermography, corona, multi-spectral and visual sensors to identify anomalies and provide visibility to the overall health and condition of the utility’s system. When a vehicle can’t access something, a drone is deployed.
“We collect the data and we use an application that we built in-house that automates the report creation process, even automates the assignment of crews based on a priority metric,” says Hatfield.
Hatfield believes the huge amount of data that is now being collected by utilities is a driver for automation. “Every utility that I have worked with has file drawers of images and reports that they don’t know what to do with,” he says.
The SkySkopes model uses AI to assess and prioritize anomalies and defects and places the data in one place that can be accessed by all stakeholders, whether it is the vegetation, construction, maintenance, or system health personnel.
According to Hatfield, driving at the speed limit, the SORV can inspect a utility pole every three to five seconds, compared to a drone which requires stopping at a pole and then conducting an inspection that would take approximately five to seven minutes. “That’s a massive amount of efficiency gain.”
“This provides a quick snapshot of the overall health and condition of their system, and allows utilities to move from a reactive to predictive maintenance model,” says Hatfield.
Costs range from $4 per asset for thermal and photogrammetry and another $6 per asset for a lidar inspection. Units can be purchased outright or accessed as a service.
Expect continued advances in robotics to improve efficiencies among all types of utilities. According to Hatfield, when the existing infrastructure is well modelled digitally it will be easier for vehicles and drones to operate autonomously. “Right now, we’re setting up the foundation to automate the process and make it more efficient and cost effective.”
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