T Xplore Submersible Robot Goes Into Power Transformer Hitachi Abb Power Grids 5f2c6a2b3cc11

Droids and Drones

Aug. 31, 2020
Robots and drones are getting artificial intelligence and it is redefining how they fit into the smart grid.

There is a lot happening with today’s digital technologies and it requires a great deal of effort to keep up with it all. It’s fascinating to watch how some digital advancements become major players, while others seem to be consigned to niche roles. Identifying a niche application before it has moved forward is gratifying, but seeing through all the chatter sometimes requires stepping back for a different perspective.

Doing that has led to some interesting subjects being discussed in this segment like virtual power plants, autonomous grid, and digital twins that are trending now. Recently a technology that has been around for a while has emerged from the technological shadows. Several years ago, droids and drones were a big topic at conferences and seminars. Then it quieted down, but the idea is gaining traction as a technology important in the battle with COVID-19.

A recent press release (PR) talked about the importance of robotics as a tool against COVID-19. The PR said a new robotic device was protecting travelers and workers at the Albuquerque, New Mexico, airport. It seems large indoor spaces like open offices, schools, airports, etc. are dangerous. They have lots of highly touchable surfaces that need to be decontaminated every day or people infection increases.

Disinfecting Droids

Disinfecting these areas isn’t a simple task, there are issues. Decontamination is both time-consuming and dangerous. To do the job correctly requires a large cleaning staff and it exposes everyone (janitorial staff and general public) in the area to environmentally hazardous pathogens and cleaning agents. Enter the robot, not just a robot, but an autonomous, fog-dispensing, disinfecting droid with cloud-based controls.

The PR also talked about the system using avoidance sensors, with on-demand automation, and an environmentally friendly disinfectant. One robot is capable of sanitizing a 100,000 sq. ft. (83,613 sq. m) area in 1.5 hours and the airport had four of them cleaning.

Granted, this application has nothing to do with the grid, but the PR raised some questions that need investigation. After all, robotics and the electric grid are not strangers. The power delivery industry has been using drones and droids for several decades. Agreed, robotics have been used in a limited capacity, but many of the limitations affecting the bots have been removed as the technology has matured.  

Power Grid Robotics

Hitting the search engines revealed droid and droid technologies have been quietly expanding their presence in the smart grid. The search results revealed a considerable amount of grid applications taking place, but before doing that we need a short explanation of grid robotic technologies. Robotic applications for the power grid are divided into three major categories: ground-based, conductor suspended, and aerial.

These categories can be further differentiated into human controlled and/or autonomous (self-controlled). For the record, an autonomous robot makes decisions through a set of sensors to perceive its environment and then takes appropriate actions exactly like the disinfecting droid that started this discussion. 

The ground operating robots are an interesting group. This application is getting sizable attention today. They are being used to patrol substations for security and equipment condition purposes. These droids are designed to live at substations with solar powered docking stations for recharging.

The robots are typically equipped with cloud-based control platforms and a variety of communications systems. Sensor wise they can be outfitted with a wide array of devices such as gas detecting monitors, UV (ultraviolet) sensors to identify corona discharges, directional microphones, thermal and IR (infrared) cameras, and high definition optical range cameras.

Last year, the State Grid Hanzhong Power Supply Co. announced a new intelligent inspection robot had passed its acceptance testing. The robot has an IR camera and a visible light camera. It can take photos, read instruments on equipment, automatically record and alarm abnormal situations. A utility spokesperson said, “The realization of comprehensive unmanned operation and maintenance inspection has become the development trend of smart grid in China.”

Florida Power and Light (FPL) is not only using inspection droids, it is developing them. Recently, FPL unveiled Miami-Dade county’s first autonomous substation inspection robot. The robot was developed in-house at FPL. It is equipped with special cameras and sensor to inspect equipment and self-navigate around the substation. The robot also looks for intruders and animals within the station. FPL said, “Currently they had four installed around the state and plans to add more as their engineers improve the robots design.”

Maintenance Droids

Robots are also assisting with maintenance and operations. According to a PR from Con Edison, it has partnered with ULC Robotics to develop a breaker racking robot. The bot has automated the process of removing and installing medium-voltage circuit breakers within electric distribution networks, which alleviates worker risks.

A Con Edison spokesperson said, “For substation operators, it will minimize exposure risk to arc flash hazards and decrease soft tissue injuries from handling heavy circuit breakers. Initial testing demonstrated the robot’s collision avoidance system, self-alignment and racking engagement capabilities, and ability to provide status indications and robot operations alarms.”

Power transformers are filled with insulating oil for a coolant, but there are times when it is necessary to go inside the transformer for internal inspections. Hitachi ABB Power Grids has developed the TXplore submersible, wirelessly controlled, transformer inspection robot. The submersible can examine the structure of the transformer without removing the oil or sending a human inside the confined space for the inspection, which reduces cost, shortens outages, and provides safer working conditions.

The swim-free drone was field tested on a 132/22/11 kV power transformer at Simcoa Operations (an Australia- based company) that was gassing. The robot inspection proved the transformer was sound and could be returned to service. The next test was for AusNet Services (an Australian energy company) on a 230/67.5/22.5 kV transformer. See the T&D World web site for the complete details: https://tdworld.com/20973023.

Transmission Line Bots

The second type of grid robot is the conductor suspended bot. The overhead transmission line is an ideal environment for these droid inspectors. They are found moving along shield wires, traversing energized conductors, climbing porcelain insulators, and performing other tasks. Like the ground operating robot, these suspended robots can be outfitted with all of the cameras and sensors being used in electrical substations.

Several years ago, Hydro-Quebec developed a “powerline-crawling” robot to aid with inspection and maintenance of their transmission system. It has the ability to inspect about 12.5 miles (20 kilometers) of transmission line a day. They call it the LineRanger and it is designed to operate on energized lines. It carries cameras, sensors and repair equipment and has been used at voltages up to and including 765 kV.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has also been developing an autonomous transmission line inspection robot named “Ti” with its utility partners. The robot is powered from a battery that is charged by the transmission line’s electromagnet field. It can carry a wide array of cameras and sensors. It is capable of determining clearance issues between the line’s conductors and nearby vegetation along with locating arcing.

Flying Droids

The aerial or flying drone is the third type of grid robot inhabiting the transmission grid. Autonomous drones are being used by utilities worldwide for vegetation and maintenance inspections of transmission lines and their rights-of-way. Drones can carry all the cameras and sensors that the other two types of grid robots do thanks to advancements in miniaturization and when combined with artificial intelligence (AI) become autonomous.

FPL announced earlier this year they have deployed two Percepto Sparrow “drone-in-a-box” systems in their Martin County Next Generation Clean Energy Center. The Percepto’s system is approved for flight two miles Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLoS). That allows the Sparrows to cover the entire Martin County facility with pre-programmed autonomous flights.

Autonomous drones are also being used at solar and wind farms to inspect the turbines and solar panels for maintenance issues, damage, and safety concerns. The drones use high resolution cameras, IR sensors and other instrumentation to monitor the facility. Since the drones are autonomous, the flights can be continuously done over the entire facility, which was impossible with human pilots.

Robots, droids, automatons, whatever you want to call them are becoming more rooted into the daily fabric of society. They are found in assembly lines and they are vacuuming our homes. As we have seen, they are patrolling substations, swimming inside power transformers, and inspecting transmission lines, and we have only scratched the surface.

According to a report by GlobalData, droids and drones are playing a critical role within the power delivery industry. The experts anticipate this role is growing. AI is giving them a sense of the world by allowing them to do hazardous jobs, riskier tasks, and time consuming activities, but don’t worry about a robot replacing us. It is more likely the robot will be working alongside of us!

About the Author

Gene Wolf

Gene Wolf has been designing and building substations and other high technology facilities for over 32 years. He received his BSEE from Wichita State University. He received his MSEE from New Mexico State University. He is a registered professional engineer in the states of California and New Mexico. He started his career as a substation engineer for Kansas Gas and Electric, retired as the Principal Engineer of Stations for Public Service Company of New Mexico recently, and founded Lone Wolf Engineering, LLC an engineering consulting company.  

Gene is widely recognized as a technical leader in the electric power industry. Gene is a fellow of the IEEE. He is the former Chairman of the IEEE PES T&D Committee. He has held the position of the Chairman of the HVDC & FACTS Subcommittee and membership in many T&D working groups. Gene is also active in renewable energy. He sponsored the formation of the “Integration of Renewable Energy into the Transmission & Distribution Grids” subcommittee and the “Intelligent Grid Transmission and Distribution” subcommittee within the Transmission and Distribution committee.

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