How Robotics Can Benefit the Utilities Industry

Across multiple industries, robotics has been proven to improve productivity and quality while lowering labor costs and labor dependency. Beyond these benefits, the use of robotics also substantially improves safety, and can eliminate risk of injury from the equation if properly designed. For the energy industry in particular, robotics offers a multitude of additional benefits—especially when it comes to keeping workers out of harm’s way.

Utility work, for example, is essential for keeping the lights on in our home and workplaces. It is also incredibly hazardous. Many tasks related to the inspection and maintenance of power lines present any number of related hazards, either from working at an elevated height or on live lines at an excess of tens of thousands of volts.

Even though the industry has made great progress in producing advanced Personal Protective Equipment and processes to keep workers safe, it only takes one small mistake to produce tragic consequences. Basic human errors can cause workers to be seriously or fatally injured from falls, electrocutions, explosions and burns. In addition, the repetition of inspection and installation tasks can cause a variety of sprains, strains and general musculoskeletal ailments, hindering an aging workforce even more.

Accidents and injuries also can prove to be quite costly for a utility. Research published by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) shows that an employee’s simple sprain can cost a company more than $65,000 in lost wages and productivity, employee training, and the repair and replacement of damaged equipment.

The Business Case
Accidents and injuries also can prove to be quite costly for a utility. Research published by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) shows that an employee’s simple sprain can cost a company more than $65,000 in lost wages and productivity, employee training, and the repair and replacement of damaged equipment. A potentially lethal injury, such as electric shock, nearly quadruples that cost, and these numbers don’t even include Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fines, legal fees—or the loss of public trust stemming from bad publicity.*

Tele-operation for Dangerous Tasks
Robotic technology can be leveraged to keep workers safe by exposing the robot—instead of a human—to these hazards. In addition, robotics offers a high degree of accuracy and repeatability when conducting any number of tasks. For instance, robots can be used to autonomously inspect power lines and perform supervised maintenance. When dealing with extremely challenging scenarios, such as those stemming from cleanup following a natural disaster, robots could be tele-operated; this allows human operators to stay “in the loop” while remaining at a safe distance.

Green As Well
In addition to improving safety and lowering costs, robotics can also have a positive effect on the environment at large by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Robotic systems can often perform many of the same tasks as humans while operating on rechargeable batteries. If deployed to a remote location, a robot will eliminate not only the time required to travel to the asset, but also the emissions of workers having to drive a car or boat to an installation site.

The robots of today, like the mobile robots my own company RE2 develops, are much more dexterous and able to adapt to a variety of dynamic environments, both indoors and outdoors. Whether tele-operated or fully autonomous, robots can help to keep workers out of harm’s way—while improving accuracy and lowering costs.

Editors Note: Robotics Business Review would like to thank RE2 for permission to reprint the original article (found HERE).

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