While Spot can sit, stand and probably do an enormous number of tricks, this unique robot from Boston Dynamics is nothing like the toy robot dogs that appeared on holiday wish lists a few years back. Spot is a true service animal.
The notion of Spot is to start applying automation in environments where traditional automation cannot go because of mobility challenges, explains Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics.
“Wheeled and tracked robots are a great solution when you have flat consistent surfaces,” he says. “But many companies have mission sets that require going from space to space, which often includes stairs, curves and different terrain types. Even within traditional manufacturing environments cabling, cut throughs or even items on the floor can make it difficult for wheeled robots.”
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With roughly 260 Spot robots currently in the field, Perry tells IndustryWeek, the number of applications is climbing as manufacturers and application engineers continue to better understand the potential. However, Spot is specifically designed to thrive within a few key applications groupings:
Dangerous environments: Spot has the ability to go into environments that are too dangerous for people. Consider, for instance, a nuclear power generation facility. While the asset is running, people cannot enter into a containment facility to do inspection work. However, Spot can conduct scheduled inspection work ahead of a shutdown, enabling maintenance teams to shorten the shutdown period by a few days.
Spot can also enter a dangerous environment reactively if, for example, there's a weird sensor warning inside a facility. Rather than forcing a shutdown, Spot can physically look around, read gauges and attach to different sensors to get data that can determine if an emergency stoppage is necessary.
Extensive data collection. Spot is a great fit when a company needs to conduct regularize data collection that is difficult to do at scale, either because a facility is so large that it is very time consuming for person. Ford’s use case is a prime example.
Or in environments were the data collection needs are both vast and complicated (i.e. a variety of data types that can't be easily added to a sensor-based IoT network). For example, Spot has been working in an LNG processing facility that has over 300,000 inspection points including thermal and acoustic readings as well as visual checks for gas leaks. “They do a manual inspection of about once a year, and they've attached some big sensors to these to check temperature, vibration, the reading of the valve and gaged,” says Perry. “Using Spot provides flexibility to collect a wide array of data. Spot may spend an entire day checking gas, creating a heat map of potential leaks. This type of information can ultimately serve as a guide for manual inspections by prioritizing the small set of the facility just to look for gas leaks.”
Another example surfaced when Energy Robotics, a developer of software solutions for mobile robots used in industrial applications, recently announced that its remote sensing and inspection solution for Spot was successfully deployed at Merck’s thermal exhaust treatment plant at its headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany.
By automating a path through their facility, Merck and Energy Robotics achieved a smooth and successful mission totaling 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 facility performance 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.
This type of routine 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 last 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.”
“Doing regularized data collection at scale can drop the overall operations maintenance cost of these facilities, take people out of hazardous work and often extract people from doing this type of pretty tedious work that requires a high degree of consistency within an environment but that's candidly pretty unpleasant,” says Perry.
Boston Dynamics is not done improving Spot, and there are a few evolutions on the immediate roadmap.
The first is to add self-charging capabilities. Having a self-charging plate means that the company is not just getting value from reducing the time a person has to spend within an environment, but potentially liming the need unnecessary travel.
Consider, for instance, an unmanned electric transmission substation in a remote location. When an alarm goes off, it triggers somebody to drive sometimes multiple hours for an inspection only to realize they don't have what’s needed to complete the repair. However, with a parked robot that's on a charger in that facility, maintenance can dial into the robot and wake it up to complete an inspection and better understand the problem. It may turn out there is no need to send anybody, or this step could help diagnose the issue before ever sending somebody to the remote location.
The second big jump in the technology is will be to expand Spot ability beyond collecting and sending data. “We will address this with an arm early next year,” says Perry. “It will be able to start doing things like throwing an electrical breaker, pick up an item, open a cabinet for more detailed inspection of something like an electric utility cabinet. All those different things start unlocking exponentially more value.”
Obviously, as Spot continues to evolve, Boston Dynamics is keenly focused on the making sure the analytics keeps pace with the mobility of the platform. “If you're trying to reduce the amount of time somebody spend on inspection work in in a industrial environment, you do not want to create a situation where that time is then spent reviewing pictures taken by a robot. That significantly reduces the value add,” says Perry.
As a result, Boston Dynamics is collaborating with computer vision providers to integrate meaningful information into the customer's workflow, whether it's SAP, Oracle, or any other status system identify when something is above or below threshold, ultimately triggering a follow up response or intervention. “Building that piping is complicated and you really want to improve the reliability of each component, whether it's the robot's mobility, or the computer and analytics system or the integration with whatever work order processing system a company uses,” says Perry.