Robotics is transforming nearly every industry, and the energy sector is no exception. Companies within the industry are using robotics to improve efficiency, enhance accuracy and reduce costs related to the manufacturing and inspection of energy equipment. Technologies such as artificial intelligence are becoming increasingly prominent, as well.
Material Handling and Manufacturing
Robots play a central role in the manufacturing of various types of energy sector equipment, including solar panels and wind turbines. When it comes to alternative technologies such as wind and solar, designs and technologies change quickly. Because of this, manufacturers typically use more generic robots, rather than highly specialised bots, for handling materials.
Solar panels are often large and complicated to handle manually, while the silicon wafers used to make them are delicate. Robots are ideally suited to these challenges. They can quickly and precisely handle silicone and finished solar panels without damaging them. Pneumatic robots have especially fluid movement, which reduces instances of errors and damage to materials.
Wind turbine manufactures also use robotics in their production process. Robots can help with many manufacturing tasks including welding, sanding, painting and polishing turbine towers and blades. Using robots for this type of work speeds up the production process, reduces costs and ensures more consistent quality. According to automation company ABB, its robotic solution for finishing wind turbine rotor blades can reduce energy consumption in the paint shop by 60 percent and cut the amount of paint used by 25 percent.
Manufacturers of components for hydroelectric facilities use robots for similar reasons. One application is the welding of wickets, large metal pieces that help regulate the flow of water. Because these items are so large, it’s difficult to weld them manually. This makes the task a perfect fit for robotics.
Energy companies also use robots for inspections of equipment for safety and maintenance purposes. Nearly all kinds of energy equipment, from pipelines to wind turbines to distribution lines, must undergo these kinds of inspections.
The CIRRIS XI™ and CIRRIS XR™ robots by ULC Robotics are inspection robots for gas pipelines. These bots can move throughout a gas distribution system and use sensors to measure wall thickness and stress. These bots dramatically reduce the amount of excavation required to inspect a pipeline system and even operate in live mains. Energy companies can use the data they collect from these robots to ensure the structural integrity of their pipelines and reduce risk.
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, have developed a system called the Pipe-Crawling Activity Measurement System (PCAMS). The system consists of a robot called RadPiper, which can autonomously traverse the inside of pipes to measure Uranium-235 deposit levels, and software for analysing and reporting the data the bot collects. This system assists in the decommissioning of uranium enrichment sites. It reduces the need for excavation, speeds up the measurement process and reduces the risk for workers who previously manually used detectors while wearing protective clothing.
Many energy companies are also using unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, to conduct inspections of equipment. Drones can quickly fly over large fields of solar panels, for example, using cameras and infrared sensors to detect damage. The use of drones reduces the time needed for inspections as compared to physically walking through the solar field to test panels.
Drones can also assist with inspecting tall equipment, such as wind turbines and distribution equipment, that is difficult and potentially dangerous to reach. They can also help with investigating equipment located in remote areas where access is limited. Overall, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles makes inspections faster and more affordable, which enables companies to perform them more often, increasing reliability.
Some robots can also conduct repairs on equipment if inspections reveal a problem. CISBOT, for example, seals joints in pipelines to stop or prevent leaks. Performing maintenance in this way requires minimal excavation and avoids disruption of service.
Robotics Will Continue to Improve Many Industries
Like so many other industries, the energy sector is increasingly relying on robotics. As robotics technologies progress, they’ll become even more common. Technologies such as artificial intelligence will also continue to integrate with robotics to improve results.