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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
The applications of robotics in power, gas and water utility industries
Keywords Robots, Gas, Electricity
Over the last ten to 15 years, robotics developments have been undertaken to assist in the maintenance and refurbishment of the worldwide infrastructure for reasons ranging from the age of the same, to the remoteness or hazard of dealing with maintenance and repair activities. The challenges have not decreased since then; on the contrary, they have increased in my estimation. There has been activity in the past in the electric power arena, underground piping, and most recently in the gas utility industry.
The electric power industry, specifically through EPRI in the USA and through various large corporations in Japan, has developed various prototype systems for use in maintenance and repair situations of overhead high-tension power lines – these systems have been used with mixed success and have not seen wide adoption worldwide. The nuclear industry has many diverse applications where special-purpose robots and equipment/tooling has been developed in the past – again few such systems are in use today. Underground ducts carrying power-feeds in urban areas have been another topic of deepening interest relating to inspection and preventive maintenance so as to avoid fires and outages. The water-power industry and its need for dam and falls-inspections as well as internal turbine inspection will continue to push the state-of-the-art in remote, underwater and small-scale articulated inspection systems, whether tethered or not.
Underground piping for water and sewer usage has been an arena of successful applications of robots. Tracked and wheeled, floating sled and other such hybrid tethered devices have gained a strong foothold in the service business for camera and acoustic inspection. Dozens of companies have developed manually deployed teleoperated systems for large- to medium-sized piping diameters with a deployment reach of hundreds of feet. Challenges in this application arena lie in being able to reach ever smaller pipe-diameters over ever increasing ranges with smaller crew sizes and logistics burden. Expanding and combining sensory inspection data from visual to acoustic/ultrasound to ascertain not only internal, but also structural and surrounding soil integrity, will be a challenge for future systems.
The gas distribution sector, responsible for taking gas provided from large transcontinental transmission lines and distributing it locally in urban areas, is the industry sector where robotics will make big inroads in the next few years. The use of remote systems to explore, inspect and repair gas mains in urban areas under live conditions, will allow utilities to view maintenance and repair operations in a new and cost-effective light. Leaking and weakened gas lines will be inspected and repaired over thousands of feet from a single excavation point without shutting down gas flow to customers. Systems developed for multi-mile untethered operation in networks of gas mains will map the insides visually, take samples and assess the structural integrity of the network in the next five to ten years. Networks of stand-alone networked stationary or movable sensors inside such networks will provide more usable data to the utilities, allowing them to ascertain better the efficiency of their network. Such capabilities will also become of interest for the oil industry, whether it is in the exploration, production or refining end of the business. This industry has used tethered (coiled-tubing, slick-/wireline) robot systems inside of production and transportation pipelines/conduits and underwater teleoperated ROVs in the past and today very successfully; these systems will evolve into more autonomous, untethered and miniaturized systems that are capable of providing almost instantaneous process information to petro-chemists/-geologists/-physicists and production managers to allow them to adjust their operations to maximize output and thus enhance the bottom line.