spot-robot

Using robots to perform preventive maintenance

Aug. 23, 2022
In this installment of Automation Zone, learn how a technology partnership seeks to drive safety as well as enable autonomous condition monitoring.

Fluke and Boston Dynamics have developed a partnership where the SV600 Fixed Acoustic Imager payload from Fluke Process Instruments is connected with the Boston Dynamics Spot robot, enabling remote and/or automated plant inspection routes. Plant Services Editor in Chief Thomas Wilk spoke about this technology partnership with Martin Budweg, product marketing manager for Fluke Process Instruments, and Tim Dykstra, director of strategic partnerships and channel sales for Boston Dynamics.

PS: Plant Services has covered a lot of portable condition monitoring tools and technologies, but this takes it to a whole new level where the robot carries the monitoring device around by itself. Tell us about the collaboration between these two companies. How did we get here, and where does the collaboration stand these days?

TD: With Spot, I call it a walking IoT device, right? It can get around the factory pretty easily, and you can mount any piece of hardware onto it. In the early days, we were focused a lot on thermal and RGB or regular photo information, capturing data on assets, maybe it’s a thermal scan of a motor, or looking at an electrical cabinet. That was a big, big focus of ours. On what was probably one of my first site visits during COVID when people started go back on sites, I had a manufacturing customer that said, “Hey, Tim, it’d be great if Spot could carry around this. It is a ii900, this is a Fluke device that my maintenance people walk around with to look for compressed air leaks.”

This company was losing about $75,000 a month in compressed air. And it said, “we’ve purchased this device to go around and monitor leaks, but we lost a few maintenance people, and it’s really difficult to find new maintenance people with the labor shortage, so we’re not able to walk around with this as much as we want to. It’d be great if Spot could do it for us.” So, I said, “Okay, that’s interesting.”

We looked at this acoustic imager by Fluke. The next week, we had a person in the food and beverage industry come to us and say the same thing: “Hey, I have this ii900 that it’d be great if you could integrate with.” The following week, I had a nuclear customer say the same thing: “Hey, we do these inspections inside a containment area. It’d be great to have this device.”
So I found Martin at the Fluke team, and we started talking, and that’s really where this relationship and this partnership formed. We’ve been working closely with them. Thankfully, as Martin said, they were starting this fixed sensor, and they said, “Hey, the ii900 is a portable device, a handheld device, but we actually have this fixed sensor that will be perfect to mount on top of Spot.” And I’ll let Martin talk a little bit more about that.

MB: (The SV600 Fixed Acoustic Imager) is a classical fixed sensor, where Fluke Process Instruments definitely has key knowledge in. And so, that’s why it came actually through our industry group and Tim, and we already started to develop the fixed sensor, and then to say, okay, let’s develop this payload for Spot because we already had some customers who were very interested, in the beverage and food industry, utility industry, power generation, mining is getting pretty big. All the assets where you need to monitor, for example, leaks, partial discharge, or going into areas where humans cannot really go because it is too dangerous, or it’s too small, or as Tim is saying, to unload their maintenance workers because they need them for other work.

To collect data, Spot is perfect to use, and we wanted to give Spot an ear, better than a human ear, because we can hear beyond the human. A human can hear roughly up to 20 kilohertz (that’s for young people, probably not for me anymore). We can hear up into the ultrasonic range, and this is where you can easily find leaks. Also the key point is to make this visible for humans. With Spot then and all the other payloads, you bring all this knowledge together, all this data together.

We see already that in many cases, customers are interested in these solutions, independent solutions, especially also more and more in the petrochemical industry where again, also safety is a reason. That’s why we decided together with Boston Dynamics to go this way and start this collaboration a year ago. We started the combined launches, the combined video material, and we hope we can show more applications.

Automation Zone

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PS: Do you see this as fitting into current safety best practices, or is this sort of breaking new safety ground for industry?

MB: I think it breaks new ground because the robot can do more than their human alternate based on specific maintenance work. Of course, we need to go step forward out to fulfill some stuff, especially in the petrochemical industry, because there we have hazardous environments. Definitely this solution on a robot or here on Spot, because Spot can go through the sites and stay safe, for example in a power plant or nuclear power plant, because we are working out here together with human beings, right? It can go inside and collect data where humans cannot stay long, or it is too small (for people) to go there; Spot is not that small, but it’s also not as big as a human.

You could also go in the dark, especially in the mining industry where it’s also very unsafe sometimes, so they want to monitor for leak detection, for example, they want to send Spot inside there. The maintenance worker is beyond the screen outside, or they can automate (data collection with Spot), so it’s definitely safer for human beings.

Let’s say in a clean room, for example, where normally a human should not go because of all the other stuff we are bringing inside with ourselves. A robot can be a good solution for maintenance control for monitoring for leak detection, because you can make a robot pretty clean, you can keep it clean, right? You don’t need to change it, unlike when a human goes in a clean room; a robot can be cleaned up and can be used for a specific time. This is also a safety factor, not for the human but for the product itself.

PS: I’m struck by how precise the robot’s movements are. In images and videos, you see the robot legs moving very carefully, and clearly it’s designed to avoid obstructions. Are these robots guided by humans in a control room? Or are there sensors in the robot that help it make self-correcting movements as it moves through a passageway or a hallway?

TD: That’s a great question. First, on the smoothness, the walking abilities have really been perfected over the last 28 years as we’ve been researching developing these legged robotics and so that’s a big factor of what plays into how easily they are able to locomote across a facility. But Spot can be driven in a couple of different ways. It can be driven in a manual fashion. And a lot of that is the safety applications that Martin described, going into a nuclear containment area, going into a high voltage substation at a utility plant, or some of these dangerous hazardous areas in a petrochemical facility.

A human can manually control it, but really all they’re doing is giving high-level commands like telling Spot go forward, turn right, go to the side, and Spot is taking care of everything else on its own. It’s using stereo cameras that are embedded into its body to create a 3D map of the world, and then it can understand, is there an obstacle there? Is there a step there? How do I adjust my gait to move over or around whatever it may be facing in its way? That’s how it moves so gracefully over let’s say a catwalk or a staircase, as well as avoid obstacles that are in the way.

The other aspect is those same stereo cameras can actually be used to map the environment, or you can put on a LIDAR for extended range and mapping environment. Then you can perform autonomous missions. A lot of our maintenance and reliability folks that are using Spot, that’s really the mode that they’re using Spot in, where it’s performing an autonomous round, and basically doing a rounds and readings type application, or a route-based monitoring application. It’s going around collecting that same data over and over, maybe every hour or every day, or every week, and collecting that data on a routine basis, just as a maintenance worker would perform a round and reading. So, there’s two different ways to operate it.

PS: Are we already at a point where the robot could memorize its own routes, and use algorithms to adjust this route if it sees obstructions in the way?

TD: That’s very much in the capabilities of Spot. If it’s walking around a food and beverage plant, and there’s a pallet all of a sudden in its pathway, it can dynamically go around that. Even furthermore let’s say, construction sites and other industry where Spot’s used in, if a wall is all of a sudden put up in its route, it can even say, “Hey, I need to find an alternative way to my destination.” And it’s very capable of doing that fully autonomously.

This story originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.