Robotics in power plants can replace workers at the point of application, enabling operators to remotely access hazardous and inaccessible zones in a safe and cost-effective manner. This is especially important for nuclear power stations to minimize the exposure of workers to radiation. For example, robots have inspected the Fukushima nuclear reactors, where high radiation levels make direct inspections impossible.
In desert settings, energy generation can fall by as much as 40% when dust storms impact the panels. The 648-megawatt (MW) solar power plant in Kamuthi, Tamil Nadu, India covers an area of 10 square kilometers consisting of 2.5 million solar modules. These modules utilize a robotic system to maintain panels at peak performance through nightly cleaning.
Robots have been used to internally inspect pipelines for some time and can now be made small enough to inspect pipelines down to six inches in diameter. In 2014, Hitachi Nuclear introduced the Surveyor, a self-propelled, articulated robot that can inspect piping from six to 48 inches in diameter and travel up to 1,000 feet from its entry point. The system was tested at a South Texas nuclear power plant, successfully inspecting a length of buried pipe without having to modify the pipe.
When the testing units are too heavy or bulky for a drone or the areas are inaccessible, robot inspections are a suitable alternative. One growth area for robotics in the industry is boiler tube inspection. Tube wall failures can result in forced outages, but manual inspections are not easy and take several days. Robotic tube inspections can accurately predict and prevent wall failures in a fraction of the time. The use of robots to ultrasonically test boiler tube walls results in quickly identifying trouble spots.
The use of robotics in power plants is positively impacting O&M in the power industry. Understanding what robotics can and cannot do is vital. As technology is advancing rapidly, many utilities are taking advantage of third-party companies specializing in robotics operations.