What is robot inspection?
Robot inspection uses robotic devices to autonomously inspect environments to reduce humans. This robotic monitoring is largely intended to reduce risk in potentially harmful environments, including construction sites and oil rigs.
Whether the goal is determining whether there is an unsafe amount of radiation or checking the integrity of miles of remote pipelines, robots can operate longer and in poorer environmental conditions. By relying on robots for inspections, organizations can centralize operations and realize operational savings.
Technology enabling robot inspection
According to market researcher Technavio, the global market for inspection robots is expected to grow by USD$5.3 billion from 2021 to 2026 at a combined aggregate growth rate of 19%. Below are some of the technologies enabling the growth of robot inspection.
- Quadruped robots. While inspection robots can take many forms and non-quadruped robots also perform inspections, the capabilities of quadruped devices like Boston Dynamic’s Spot or ANYbotic’s ANYmal have sparked imaginations and applications. The nimble, accurate, and responsive way quadruped robots can move has been a game changer.
- Sensors. Advancements in sensors, both to enable robots to react dynamically to unfamiliar terrains as well as gather important inspection data, have moved robot inspection forward.
- Teleoperation. If you aren’t there in the flesh, teleoperation is the next best thing. Teleoperation allows a user feet or miles away to remotely operate the robot while getting a human’s eyes on the situation. Some inspection robots may ask a human to take a second look at an anomaly.
- High-resolution cameras. Teleoperation without a camera is literally driving blind, so cameras are vital for most inspection robots. Improvements in resolution along with lower prices have improved the versatility and ROI of robot inspection.
- Video compression technologies. Remote inspection requires transmitting large volumes of rich video collected by a high-res camera to servers and storage arrays over a wireless network, making the sharing of this data slow, laggy, and expensive. Innovations in the compression technology space are solving the video file size challenge.
- Wireless communications. Robot inspection can take place anywhere, but the majority of locations require mobile, wireless communications. The growth of 5G and price drops in communication technology makes it possible.
- Cloud. Robot inspection’s primary task is collecting data on the current state of things. Storing that data in the cloud removes the need to outfit robots with large local storage capacity and spares humans the wait until the robot returns from its travels.
Benefits of robot inspection
Humans excel at navigating uncertain terrain and making decisions on the fly as a matter of course. So what are the dynamics leading innovators to adopt robot inspection?
In addition to keeping humans safe, robot inspection also removes some other obstacles humans introduce into the inspection process. Humans get tired and need to eat, but they also can get bored and inattentive, especially when doing something repetitive like inspections. Robots, in contrast, inspect equally as well, and with precision humans can’t match. And while one human inspector’s assessment of “good condition” may vary from another’s, robots will provide a consistency humans lack.
Robot inspection can gather information about an environment before humans enter, increasing safety even after the robot’s job is done. This “know before you go” aspect has other benefits as well, such as ensuring that the human technician sent out to fix an issue discovered by a robot inspection has all the right parts, tools, and materials with them to avoid multiple trips. This information allows operators to optimize resources deployed on-site, maximizing each field visit while reducing the cost of operations.
Other operational efficiencies made possible by robot inspection include freeing up humans for higher-value work and finding and addressing anomalies and weaknesses before they become emergencies.
Finally, the remote management aspect of robot inspection provides an opportunity for organizations with far-flung inspection outposts to centralize operations. This ability to scale up while also consolidating and saving money offers another user benefit.
Robot inspection applications
There are myriad form factors and types of inspection robots. And for those who can’t find an off-the-shelf solution that fits their need, they can even go the DIY route using directions online and buying all the parts on Amazon. Many inspection robots used across industries fall under the heading of non-destructive testing (NDT), which refers to testing and data collection about something without permanently changing it. Specific applications include:
- Energy generation inspections. Inspections of oil drilling facilities and gas pipelines are one of the most commonly mentioned applications for robot inspection. This category also encompasses robots monitoring nuclear energy sites, robots inspecting electrical substations, or making sure energy storage tanks are intact.
- Civil engineering inspections. It’s a little disputed fact that much of the monitoring of public and civil infrastructure put in place in the post-WWII period is aging. Inspections of bridges, tunnels, sewer lines, and other civil infrastructure are increasing as local, state, and federal agencies determine how to best spend funding to rehab or replace infrastructure.
- Cave inspections. Cave robot inspections can scout out harder-to-reach locations, test for air quality, or sample materials for mining potential.
- Underwater inspections. Whether at the bottom of the sea or inside a liquid or gas storage tank, these robots inspect the integrity of each structure better than a human could with just the naked eye.
- Hazmat issues. Whether the concern is chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear contamination, robots can be sent ahead to help humans understand what hazards they face so they are prepared and protected.
- Construction robots. Construction inspection robots are on the job before work begins exploring the state of the foundation or hard-to-reach crawl spaces. Sometimes they show up midway through the project to check that real-world measurement matches the blueprints. Regardless of what phase of construction they are associated with, these robots help keep surprises to a minimum and work on track.