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UK Power Networks leverages robotic dog to help with tunnel inspections

UK Power Networks leverages robotic dog for tunnel inspections
A robotic dog named Spot is performing tunnel inspections for UK Power Networks.

UK Power Networks has been reducing the amount of time its engineers spend in confined spaces doing tunnel inspections, thanks to the use of a robotic dog.

The distribution network operator is currently trialling a robotic dog nicknamed ‘Spot’, who is about the size of a labrador. The benefit of Spot is the fact that it can carry out inspections throughout UK Power Network’s underground tunnel network and reduce the time human engineers need to spend in confined spaces. 

It’s the first time a robot dog has been used by a distribution network operator in the UK, and is supplied by American robotics firm, Boston Dynamics. Spot comes equipped with lights, cameras and advanced thermal imaging sensors, capturing comprehensive data in hard-to-reach locations. 

Since the beginning of the trial, UK Power Networks estimates that Spot has reduced the amount of time engineers spend in confined spaces during maintenance inspections by around 50%. 

Swapping a human engineer for a robot dog is one thing – but ensuring that it can spot any problems is another. Thankfully, Spot is remotely guided by a professional engineer who assesses the camera footage and the thermal imaging that the robotic dog is capturing. 

Additionally, UK Power Networks says that Spot is equipped with a new machine learning platform that uses historical data to make sure underground cables remain reliable, and also assess how quickly the infrastructure’s condition is changing. This platform was developed by engineering and built environment consultancy Arup.

Spot is currently roaming around the distribution network operator’s area of operation, which includes 47 tunnels across London, the East, and the South East of England. One of Spot’s recent jobs included a trial run near a UK Power Networks’ substation in the heart of London.

It’s thought that the use of Spot could save UK Power Networks an estimated £162,000 a year, rising to £324,000 a year by 2028. That’s because the 160 tunnel inspections that the DNO currently makes requires teams of staff to cover health and safety, in addition to engineering tasks – costing in excess of £1 million a year. 

Ian Cameron, Director of Customer Service and Innovation at UK Power Networks, noted, “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, added, “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.”

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