The Future of Substation Inspection: Harnessing the Power of Robots and AI

February 5, 2024

Expanding electricity demand, along with a rising percentage of inputs into the grid via renewable sources, means a rising number of electrical infrastructure, including substations. Substations are an integral and critically important part of any electrical generation, transmission, and distribution system. Germany, for example, has 8,000 substations, whilst the U.S. has 55,000. The fact that they are often in remote locations makes inspections of substations all the more logistically and financially burdensome and problematic for energy utilities. That is why inspections by mobile robots of certain key parameters in electrical substations are a highly beneficial alternative to physical inspections by humans. This input by robots is particularly relevant within the context of four major potential risks or impacts posed by most substations, namely fire, explosion, emissions, and theft.

What does Substation Inspection entail?

Substation inspection is a critical component of maintaining the reliability and efficiency of the electrical grid. It involves the regular examination of equipment to detect any anomalies that could potentially lead to failures. From transformers to circuit breakers, each piece of equipment plays a crucial role in ensuring the smooth transmission and distribution of electricity.

The purpose of substation inspection is to prevent unexpected equipment failures and power outages, which can be expensive and disruptive. Repairs can be made by identifying potential issues early before they escalate into larger problems.

As such, substation inspection is not just a maintenance task—it’s a proactive measure to ensure the continuous supply of electricity to homes and businesses.

However, the process of substation inspection is complex and can be fraught with risks. Electrical substations are often located in remote areas, making maintenance and inspection very expensive and time-consuming. Inspectors must navigate high-voltage environments and assess equipment that can be difficult to access. This is where advancements in technology, specifically robots and artificial intelligence (AI), are starting to significantly make an impact.

The Importance of Substation Inspection

Substation inspection is vital for maintaining the integrity of the power infrastructure. Without regular inspections, equipment failures can occur, leading to power outages and disruptions that can have far-reaching consequences. For example, a power outage can halt production in factories, disrupt essential services in hospitals, and affect the quality of life in residential areas.

Moreover, the cost of addressing equipment failures can be significant. Not only are there the direct costs of repairing or replacing damaged equipment but also the indirect costs associated with service disruptions. Therefore, regular substation inspections can help to prevent these costs and keep the power infrastructure running smoothly.

In addition to these practical considerations, there are also regulatory requirements for substation inspections. Utility companies are required by law to conduct regular inspections and maintenance to ensure the safety and reliability of their infrastructure. Failure to comply with these requirements can result in hefty fines and penalties.

Traditional Methods of Substation Inspection

Traditional methods of substation inspection involve physical examination of equipment by trained personnel. This typically includes visual inspections, thermal imaging, and ultrasonic testing to detect any anomalies that could indicate potential issues. However, these methods can be time-consuming, costly, and potentially hazardous.

Inspectors must enter high-voltage environments, putting themselves at risk of electrical accidents. Furthermore, some equipment is located in hard-to-reach areas, making inspections challenging and sometimes requiring the use of specialized equipment or techniques.

Moreover, traditional inspection methods rely heavily on the expertise and judgement of the inspectors. While their skill and experience are invaluable, human error can never be eliminated. This is particularly the case when inspections are carried out under challenging conditions or when inspectors are under pressure to complete inspections within tight schedules.

The Evolution of Substation Inspection: A Glimpse into the Future

The future of substation inspection lies in harnessing the power of robots, drones, and AI. With advancements in technology, it is now possible to automate many aspects of substation inspection, reducing the need for human intervention and thus minimizing the associated risks and costs.

Robots equipped with advanced sensors and imaging technologies can perform detailed inspections without the need for human inspectors to enter high-voltage environments. They can navigate hard-to-reach areas and collect data more accurately and consistently than human inspectors.

AI, on the other hand, can analyze the vast amounts of data collected during inspections to identify patterns and anomalies. This can help to predict potential equipment failures and guide maintenance activities, leading to more efficient and proactive management of the power infrastructure.

Robots and AI in Substation Inspection

Robots and AI are revolutionizing the way substation inspections are conducted. Robots, equipped with a range of sensors, are capable of inspecting various types of equipment in different environments. They can easily access hard-to-reach areas and perform tasks that would be hazardous for human inspectors.

AI complements the capabilities of robots by analyzing the data they collect. By applying machine learning algorithms, AI can identify patterns and anomalies that could indicate potential equipment failures. This allows for predictive maintenance, where issues can be addressed before they result in equipment failure.

The combination of robots and AI not only increases the efficiency and accuracy of substation inspections but also enhances safety by reducing the need for human inspectors to work in high-voltage environments.

Benefits of Using Robots and AI for Substation Inspection

The integration of robots and AI in the inspection of substations presents a myriad of advantages. Employing these advanced technologies enhances the efficiency and accuracy of inspection processes, leading to improved overall reliability and safety in power distribution systems. 

  1. It increases the accuracy and consistency of inspections. Robots can collect data more accurately than humans, and AI can analyze this data to identify patterns and anomalies that may be missed by human inspectors.
  2. Using robots and AI enhances safety. Robots can perform inspections in high-voltage environments and hard-to-reach areas without putting human inspectors at risk. Moreover, by predicting potential equipment failures, AI can guide maintenance activities to prevent accidents.
  3. Robots and AI can increase the efficiency of substation inspections. They can perform inspections faster than humans, and AI can analyze data in real-time, allowing for immediate action if any issues are detected. This can result in significant cost savings by reducing downtime and preventing costly repairs.
  4. With the ability to effortlessly scale operations, transmission system operators (TSOs) can efficiently deploy cost-effective robots to cover a multitude of remote facilities. This scalability not only ensures comprehensive inspection coverage but also optimizes resource utilization. The adaptability of AI-driven systems allows for streamlined data collection and analysis, enhancing the overall effectiveness of maintenance strategies. As the energy landscape continues to expand, the scalability of robotic inspection proves instrumental in maintaining a resilient and cost-efficient infrastructure.

Minimize the Risk of Fire or Explosion

An important robot inspection at a substation is to check on power couplings, an important consideration given that it is usually a facility with electrical (or switchable) equipment with multiple configurations. That inspection is critical because a leading cause of electrical fires and explosions at substations is electrical arcing. An ABB study of arc phenomenon found that most switchgear arcing accidents at substations occurred due to human factors during either installation, maintenance, or inspection. As with so much hazardous work, remove the human factor and the risk tends to decrease, sometimes appreciably.

Another inspection that a robot can undertake at an electrical substation is to check on oil levels in transformers. The voltage conversion process that occurs in transformers can generate immense amounts of heat due to electrical resistance, which is why insulating fluids are used to absorb this heat.

Robots can also assist in the inspection of leaks at transformers, which is important since transformer fires can be in the form of pool fires, which occur when transformer oil leaks from gaskets, breaches in the steel tank, or other defects onto the ground. Leak detection during the inspection is also important for spray fires, which occur when flammable vapors are released from an overheating transformer tank into the surrounding atmosphere. The risk of fire at an electrical substation is not negligible. A transformer has an average 4 percent risk of fire over a typical 40-year service life.

inspection robot at substation
Robots reliably collect high-quality inspection data and enable the smooth functioning of critical equipment such as transformers and circuit breakers.

Minimize Emissions of SF6

Sulfur hexafluoride, or SF6, is a cheap and non-flammable synthetic gas that is widely used in the electrical industry to prevent short circuits due to overheating in vessels and electrical equipment such as transformers. It is immensely effective as an insulating material in medium and high-voltage electrical installations. Unfortunately, it is also the most powerful and thus toxic greenhouse gas known to humanity, with 23,000 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide. That is why just one kilogram of SF6 is the equivalent of 24 people flying from London to New York returning in terms of global warming. In 2017, it was estimated that SF6 leakages in the European Union amounted to the equivalent of an extra 1.3 million cars on the road. It is also a highly persistent greenhouse gas with a lifespan of at least 1,000 years. Autonomous robots can be used for leak detection during an inspection, thereby solving the potential risk of undue SF6 leakages from substation equipment.

Minimize the Risk of Theft

Copper theft from substations and other electricity infrastructure has been on the rise in recent years due to the rising price of copper on the world market. This theft is a problem worldwide. In 2021 alone, copper theft from a substation left 2,137 households without power in Kingston, South Australia, at the height of winter, whilst copper theft resulted in a fire at a rural substation in eastern Texas that resulted in power outages for about 2000 homes.

Mobile robots installed with cameras can undertake surveillance of substation perimeters and result in speedier alerts at off-site security control stations of breaches by unauthorized persons, as well as other unwanted ‘visitors’ such as children or animals. These robots can also do checks on the integrity of fencing and other barriers limiting access into a facility, as well as whether doors and gates have been locked, and so forth.

substation with autonomous robots
Autonomous robotic inspection helps reduce risks in substations, while at the same enabling network providers to scale through reduced operating costs.

The Renewable Energy Factor

As mentioned in the introduction, many countries worldwide are experiencing an ongoing boom in renewable power generation. For example, energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar PV, and biomass already accounts for 45 percent of Germany’s national grid. This means that hundreds of thousands of small installations for renewable transmission will continue to be added to the grid, with, for example, over 1.7 million solar PV installations and over 29,000 onshore wind turbines already existing in Germany by 2020. The result is an invariable increase in the number of substations or additional burden on existing substations, which, in turn, means heightened substation-related risks countrywide. That reality is replicated worldwide.

Successful Deployment of Robots at E.DIS

A pilot project was undertaken between German electricity company E.DIS (a subsidiary of E.ON) and Energy Robotics at a substation in a remote town in eastern Germany. The purpose of the project was to provide important insights into the use of modern robot technology for inspections at substations. The collaboration commenced at the beginning of 2021, with Energy Robotics chosen due to it being able to offer the first commercially available software platform that combines a hardware-independent robot operating system, cloud-based fleet management, and AI-driven data analysis for applications such as mobile inspections at substations.

E.DIS was especially keen to assess the inspection of substation technology possible with the robot-enhanced software, such as the reading of analog measuring instruments. The company was also interested in assessing how fundamental security-related issues could be checked and monitored with the robot, such as whether existing substation fences have been damaged or doors not properly locked. Furthermore, LiDAR installed on the robots can be used to create comprehensive 3D maps of the substation site.

With the potential safety, environmental, and financial risks posed by substations, and an ever-growing demand for electricity in most markets, the future of inspections at these facilities will be increasingly robotic.

Automated Substation Inspection at Bayernwerk

As the largest power distribution network operator in Bavaria, Bayernwerk is working on innovative solutions for enhancing supply security, occupational safety and building sustainable energy systems for tomorrow. For this reason, the company is currently using the automated inspection solution from Energy Robotics.

The goal of the cooperation is to achieve higher supply security, sustainability, and occupational safety by shortening inspection intervals, relieving employees from monotonous tasks, and reducing commutes to remote sites through autonomous robotic inspection. The robot’s inspection routine involves following a predefined mission route, navigating reliably even in challenging conditions such as ice and snow and collecting high-quality data. 

This data is transformed into actionable insights through AI applications running on the Energy Robotics Cloud. For example, the images of analog devices such as an oil level gauge, is analyzed to detect impending overheating in good time using thermography.

Robot on an automated inspection mission at a Bayernwerk substation.

The Future of Substation Inspection with Robots and AI

Looking ahead, the use of robots and AI in substation inspection is set to become more widespread. As these technologies continue to evolve, they will become more capable and affordable, making them accessible to more utility companies.

One prediction is that robots will become more autonomous, and capable of performing inspections with minimal human intervention. This will further enhance safety and increase the efficiency of inspections.

AI, meanwhile, will become more sophisticated in its ability to analyze data and predict potential equipment failures. This will empower predictive maintenance and further reduce the risk of unexpected power outages.

In the long run, the combination of robots and AI could revolutionize substation inspection, transforming it from a manual, reactive process into an automated, proactive one.

Conclusion: Embracing the Future of Substation Inspection

The future of substation inspection is undoubtedly exciting. With the power of robots and AI, it is possible to conduct inspections more accurately, efficiently, and safely. While there are challenges to overcome, the potential benefits are significant.

As utility companies look to the future, they must embrace these emerging technologies. By doing so, they can not only improve their substation inspection processes but also enhance the reliability and efficiency of their power infrastructure. The future is here, and it is time to harness the power of robots and AI in substation inspection.

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Vladimir Margolin
Vice President Global Sales