Merck: Monitoring Thermal Exhaust Plants

The Energy Robotics software solution enables Spot, from Boston Dynamics, to conduct remote, autonomous inspection missions at facilities of Merck, a leading Science and Technology company

Thermal exhaust treatment facilities play an important role in environmental protection. They contain a number of maintenance intensive components that must be monitored frequently. Sensors typically held by a human doing routine inspection are used to detect anomalies in equipment such as pumps or fans, as well as inspect pressure and fluid levels in tanks. Energy Robotics equipped Spot with these sensors to make critical asset monitoring more efficient. With sensors like thermal and zoom cameras, Spot gathered data that was transferred by encrypted communication over the public 4G network to the operator’s web-based interface on PC or tablet.

By automating a path through their facility, Merck and Energy Robotics achieved a smooth and successful mission totalling one hour for a course through a multi-story facility, with the robot negotiating multiple industrial stairs. At scale, such robotic inspections can increase the frequency and consistency of asset integrity monitoring. Using a larger, more diverse data set automatically collected by robots could significantly improve long-term efficiency by predictive maintenance. This type of scaled equipment monitoring would also make environmental protection efforts more effective.

Spot Robot from Boston Dynamics with Energy Robotics autonomy software and sensor solution at Merck’s thermal exhaust treatment plant.

This type of routine and frequent monitoring is important, but dull and uncomfortable. Spot helps to perform physically demanding tasks in confined, hot and noisy spaces. The robot also provides routine maintenance and asset performance data in a reproducible, high quality manner.

What appears to be easy and efficient, is the result of enormous worldwide progress in both robotic software and hardware development over the recent years.

“Merck is one of the first companies in Europe testing Spot. The pilot with our new partners Energy Robotics and Boston Dynamics shows the state of the art in autonomous robotics,” says Hartmut Manske, Head of Automation and Robotics at Merck. “We are convinced that robots like Spot can efficiently and reliably support remotely supervised missions at our plants.”

Energy Robotics has equipped Spot with thermal and zoom cameras, 4G wireless communication, onboard computing and its software suite to perform supervised autonomous inspection rounds.

Pilot insights: Proving the value of robotic hardware and software

Combining Boston Dynamics’ intuitive controls, robotic intelligence and open interface with Energy Robotics’ control and autonomy software, user interface and encrypted cloud connection, Spot can be taught to autonomously perform a specific inspection round while being supervised remotely from anywhere with internet connectivity. Multiple cameras and industrial sensors enable the robot to find its way around while recording and transmitting information about the facility’s onsite equipment operations.

Spot reads the displays of gauges in its immediate vicinity and can also zoom in on distant objects using an externally-mounted optical zoom lens. In the thermal exhaust treatment facility, for instance, it monitors cooling water levels and notes whether condensation water has accumulated. Outside the facility, Spot monitors pipe bridges for anomalies.

Among the robot’s many abilities, it can detect defects in wires and monitor the temperature of pump components using thermal imaging. The robot was put through its paces on a comprehensive course that tested its ability to handle special challenges such as climbing stairs, scaling embankments and walking over grating. To avoid collisions, Spot is able to circumvent vehicles and other obstacles.

As part of the one-hour inspection tour, Spot successfully climbed several stairs autonomously.

“With Spot, Boston Dynamics provides a robot with outstanding mobility for innovative industrial applications. Spot perfectly complements our comprehensive software stack for autonomous inspection, navigation and fleet management,” says Dr. Stefan Kohlbrecher, CTO of Energy Robotics. “Together with Merck, we are looking forward to expanding Spot’s use cases, especially for challenging indoor and outdoor areas, such as autonomous inspection of a wastewater treatment plant. With such deployments we create tangible business value for our customers.” adds Dr. Dorian Scholz, CEO of Energy Robotics.

Three partners, one goal

Michael Perry, Vice President of Business Development from US-based company Boston Dynamics is confident: “Energy Robotics has significant experience around autonomous mobile robot control and sensor integrations in complex environments. We are looking forward to cooperating with them in the future as a strong partner to serve our industrial customers.”

Autonomous robots are gaining traction in several industries. Energy Robotics’ software for autonomous robotic inspection and fleet supervision, which is already a leading solution in the oil and gas industry, is now available with Boston Dynamics’ Spot, the leading solution in mobile robotics for rugged environments. Customers like Merck benefit from this powerful combination, which allows to generate and analyze large volumes of sensor data increasing operational efficiency, reducing maintenance costs, and improving people’s working conditions.

About Merck

Merck, a leading science and technology company, operates across healthcare, life science and performance materials. Around 57,000 employees work to make a positive difference to millions of people’s lives every day by creating more joyful and sustainable ways to live. From advancing gene editing technologies and discovering unique ways to treat the most challenging diseases to enabling the intelligence of devices – the company is everywhere. In 2019, Merck generated sales of € 16.2 billion in 66 countries.

About Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics is the global leader in developing and deploying highly mobile robots capable of tackling the toughest robotics challenges. Since its founding in 1992, the company has led the creation and delivery of robots with advanced mobility, dexterity and intelligence. These high-performance robots combine the principles of dynamic control and balance with sophisticated mechanical designs, cutting-edge electronics and next-generation software to add value in unstructured industrial environments and positively impact society.