Leveraging Advanced Robotics to Simplify Boiler Inspections

Sarcos Guest Blog Series: David Strubberg

Energy is a complicated business, particularly in the current environment. Companies operating coal, hydroelectric, and nuclear plants face tight margins, and must work hard to both economize and prioritize safety.

As a result, the industry is always looking for new ways to perform tasks more efficiently. Boiler inspection is a great example. Boilers are large and complex, with a great deal of tubing. Shutting them down can be expensive and human inspections can be highly regulated.

In my former role as Director of Innovation at Ameren Missouri, I had the opportunity to test the Sarcos Guardian S remote visual inspection robot during a planned boiler shut down and inspection. On paper, the robot’s maneuverability, wireless mobility, lights, cameras, and interchangeable sensor capability seemed like it was an excellent tool to augment traditional inspections. But first, we had to run the Guardian S robot through its paces.

A Complicated Process

Many of the boilers being used today are older and Ameren and other companies need to keep them working until more renewable energy sources come online. As a result, conducting regular boiler inspections is key to ensuring optimal performance. Inspectors look for steam leaks, unwanted slag build-up, and other problems. Their assessments will directly inform the maintenance work down-stream.

When an energy company shuts down a boiler for repair, it must buy energy to replace the power it’s not generating. It doesn’t want to buy too much or too little; either will be an added expense. That’s why robust inspections are so important – they can reduce downtime and help preserve already tight margins.

But inspections can be challenging. Boilers aren’t designed for easy access, and the process can pose some big safety risks. Inspectors must often use sky climbers, or other raised platforms, to access structures up to 200 feet in the air.

Workers are also challenged when they inspect the mud drum, a complex pressure vessel at the bottom of the boiler. There are many connected tubes and piping, and inspectors must lie flat on a skateboard to roll through as best they can.

Not only are these tight spaces, but they’re just not designed for people. This can really influence inspections, as there’s generally a bias to do them as quickly as possible. Human inspections have other drawbacks, too. Observations can be subjective, and inspections notes are often difficult to interpret – without pictures or mapping info marking exactly where problem spots were seen.

The Guardian S Platform

The Guardian S robot appealed to us because it could augment human inspections, giving workers an extra set of eyes for challenging areas. We thought the robot’s compact, snake-like configuration could be helpful in boilers and other confined spaces. In addition, the Guardian S robot can be outfitted with magnetic treads, allowing it to climb vertically-oriented ferromagnetic surfaces, like a boiler wall.

The test included the boiler’s superheaters, water wall tubes, lower water wall heaters, and mud drum. The robot’s 4K cameras were used to spot slag and other issues, while the infrared sensor helped identify potential steam leaks via heat map imagery.

Improved Inspection Performance

The Guardian S robot completed the inspection in one day, much faster than the three to five days it would have taken our own workers. More importantly, it reduced the need for people to enter confined spaces like the mud drum.

The 4K video-stream capability was an invaluable tool, giving inspectors a bird’s eye view, as well as providing a permanent record of the inspection. Photos and videos were archived to inform future inspections, but they could also be used to verify the work for regulators or insurance companies.

A critical selling feature for us was the robot’s wireless control capabilities. Wireless connection between the robot and the OCU – via radio link or WiFi – and its long range communications made it relatively easily to access the most challenging areas. It’s advanced maneuverability and long battery life also played a central role in accelerating the inspection timetable.

This versatility could play big in the energy industry. As we reviewed the robot’s performance, we identified a variety of other applications. For example, Ameren Missouri has underground vaults throughout St. Louis that also require periodic inspections. Like the boilers, these vaults are not designed for human habitation. In these and other cases, robotic inspections would be quite appealing.

Though it couldn’t access every nook and cranny, the Guardian S robot helped us complete a solid boiler inspection quickly and accurately. This is a promising application, which can save time and money for energy companies. But most importantly, it keeps inspectors out of confined spaces, so they face significantly less risk. Ameren was quite impressed with its performance and have now purchased a Guardian S robot.

Interested in Learning More?

I recently co-hosted a webinar with Sarcos on the topic of “How to Protect Employees & Improve Your Bottom Line with Advanced Robotics.” You can watch a recording of this webinar now:

About David Strubberg

David Strubberg is a 34-year veteran of the utility industry. Until his recent retirement from Ameren Missouri, he was the Director of Innovation and IT projects, a role which enabled him to bring innovative technology such as wireless sensors, mobile workforce platforms, augmented reality, and robotics to Ameren’s energy centers.

Also, during his distinguished career as Director of Operations at Ameren’s Labadie Energy Center, the plant was selected as Best Performer in 2011 for Large Fossil Plants by the Electric Utility Cost Group. The Labadie plant was also a multi-year recipient of Navigant’s Plant Operational Excellence Award(2009-2103). David also contributed to numerous projects and publications for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), earning the EPRI Technology Transfer Award for Plant Reliability Optimization in 2009.

Prior to Ameren Missouri, David worked for Entergy (formerly Gulf States Utilities). He graduated from the University of Missouri-Rolla with a BS in Mechanical Engineering and from Webster University with a Master’s in Business Administration.

David is a registered Professional Engineer and Project Management Professional.