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Robotic 'dog' halves time power workers spend in confined spaces

24 August 2023

In a UK-first innovative trial, robotic dog ‘Spot’ who is about the size of a Labrador, is helping to keep workers safe across the underground power network in London, the East, and the South East of England.

Image: UK Power Networks
Image: UK Power Networks

Spot takes remotely-guided ‘walkies’ to get camera footage and thermal imaging, which is then combined with a new machine-learning platform using historical data to make sure underground cables remain reliable, and also assess how quickly the infrastructure’s condition changes.

The UK-first trial has seen Spot, supplied by US firm Boston Dynamics, equipped with lights, cameras and advanced thermal imaging sensors, capturing comprehensive data in hard-to-reach locations. For example recently he went for a trial run near a UK Power Networks’ substation in the heart of London.

Initial results revealed his potential to reduce the time of maintenance inspections where staff work in confined spaces, by up to 50%.

The innovative project has been supported by engineering and built environment consultancy Arup, whose new web platform includes a machine-learning interface to analyse the condition of tunnels and equipment with remarkable accuracy, enabling UK Power Networks to fine-tune maintenance inspections.

Ian Cameron, Director of Customer Service and Innovation at UK Power Networks, said: “The safety of our staff remains our top priority as we continue to keep the lights on for people.

“The application of Spot alongside Arup’s digital interface has proven to be a massive success and could significantly reduce the risk to staff during tunnel and shaft inspections.

“This is cutting-edge technology, allowing us to focus on other areas of the network and potentially saving our customers money in the process.”

Mike Devriendt, Project Director at Arup, said: “It has been a pleasure to work collaboratively with UK Power Networks to introduce, trial and apply these new innovative technologies. We see great opportunity for the use of both the hardware and software technology to support UK Power Networks with improving their understanding of the condition of their assets while at the same time improving health and safety practices.”

There are 47 tunnels across UK Power Networks’ operating areas, with over 160 tunnel inspections taking place every year that require teams of staff to cover health and safety plus engineering tasks. These cost in excess of £1million per year across UK Power Networks’ areas. As well as increasing the safety of engineers, it is estimated the project could initially save £162,000 per year, rising to £324,000 per year by 2028.

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