The Daniel-Johnson Dam and Manic-5 Generating Station in Quebec, Canada.
(Image courtesy of Hydro-Québec.)
As an engineer, what do you do when faced with a problem that has no off-the-shelf solution?
The answer is obvious: you build one yourself.
This applies not only to the tinkerers and inventors toiling away in garages and workshops, but also to multibillion-dollar organizations.
Consider the Canadian public utility, Hydro-Québec.
Formed by the Government of Quebec in 1944, the company currently controls 63 hydroelectric power stations with a combined capacity of 36,908 MW. Its total revenue in 2016 was $ 13.75 billion CDN ($11.15 billion USD), with a net income of $3.15 billion ($2.55 billion USD). Consequently, the company’s power rates are among the lowest in North America.
So, what does a public utility do with that kind of revenue?
The Varennes Research and Testing Laboratories, located outside of Montreal, Quebec.
(Image courtesy of CIGRE/IEC.)
, Hydro-Québec’s $100M research institute, and the only one of its kind in North America. Employing roughly 500 scientists, technicians, engineers and specialists, IREQ is tasked with extending the service life of Hydro-Québec facilities, boosting performance and optimizing maintenance.
A subsidiary of Hydro-Québec, MIR Innovation (Maintenance, Inspection and Robotics) works on commercializing the technologies developed by IREQ’s team of robotics researchers, engineers and technicians, with a specific focus on asset inspection and maintenance.
LineScout – Transmission Line Inspection and Maintenance
(Image courtesy of Hydro-Québec.)
One of IREQ’s biggest success stories is the LineScout
, a robot designed for inspecting and maintaining overhead power lines.
Hydro-Québec’s transmission system is the most extensive in North America, comprising 533 substations and over 34,272 km (21,295 mi) of power lines. Those lines require regular maintenance and inspection, but they’re often located in remote mountainous or forested regions that are difficult for maintenance crews to access. The LineScout is IREQ’s solution to this problem.
Weighing in at 115 kg (254 lbs), the LineScout can travel along 735kV/1,000A power lines at a rate of 1.0m/s, negotiating obstacles like insulator strings or vibration dampeners as it goes. Four cameras allow operators to conduct visual inspections, while digital radiography enables the LineScout to detect broken conductor strands under suspension clamps. It can even repair broken strands or ground wires using specialized on-board tools.
Thanks to IREQ, other electric utilities in North America, Europe and Asia are using one or more LineScouts. The robot also won the 2010 Edison Award and the 2012 IET Innovation Award for its contributions to the advancement of the global power industry. However, despite its success from an engineering standpoint, you won’t find a LineScout hanging from every power line.
Ultimately, it comes down manufacturing: IREQ developed the technology and MIR Innovation commercialized it, but Hydro-Québec as a whole is not in the business of mass producing robots to inspect power lines. Like all companies, Hydro-Québec exists to serve its shareholders—of which it only has one: the province of Quebec itself.
The LineScout solves a problem for Hydro-Québec, and through various partnerships with other utilities, it’s solving the same problem for others as well. However, the utilities market is relatively small, as is the number of potential customers for any given solution. Mass producing the LineScout just doesn’t make financial sense, regardless of its engineering merits.
Drones for Power Line Inspection and Maintenance
Given the ever-increasing use of drones
for inspecting manufacturing facilities
and gas pipelines
, mapping oil spills
and even taking a more active role by fighting wildfires
, one might wonder whether there really is a business case for the LineScout.
Serge Montambault, manager for inspection and maintenance robotics at IREQ, argues that the principal advantages the LineScout has over drones are its stability and payload capacity. However, that’s not to say that IREQ isn’t also working on using drones for transmission line inspection and maintenance.
“This is all about efficient maintenance with the right tools,” Montambault said.
To that end, Hydro-Québec has been developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with sensors that detect the early signs of corrosion in conductors. The sensor—called LineCore, also developed by IREQ—can evaluate the galvanic protection on transmission and distribution line conductors, even when they’re energized.
Of course, having a sensor that can operate on energized lines isn’t really useful unless you have a drone that can land on them without getting fried. That’s why IREQ has been hard at work on enhancing UAV electromagnetic immunity. You can see some of the results of this research—including landing a drone on an energized 315 kV line—in the video below:
Although these drones aren’t yet seeing field service, it’s not hard to imagine potential applications beyond power line maintenance and inspection. Having a UAV that can come within spitting distance of a high-energy line and float away unscathed would presumably be appealing to any company looking to use drones on a regular basis, like Amazon.
SCOMPI – Turbine Repair
One of the earliest IREQ projects, SCOMPI is a compact robot designed for repair and fabrication tasks on large steel components. Traditionally, replacing or refurbishing large hydropower turbine runners is a lengthy and expensive task, one which can require removing the runner from its housing.
In an effort to find an alternative, IREQ developed a portable, rail-based robot that can fit within the confined space surrounding turbine runners. Weighing in at just 38 kg (84 lbs) and with a reach of 940 mm (37 in), SCOMPI fits right in.
(Image courtesy of Hydro-Québec.)
Once a temporary rail has been installed, the robot can be deployed to perform cavitation pitting and crack repairs, blade profile modification for increased efficiency, spherical valve sealing surface repairs and other tasks, including grinding, polishing and hammer peening.
SCOMPI, like other IREQ projects, has huge potential outside the power industry: a portable robot that can effect repairs on large components would be a natural fit in the aerospace industry, for example. However, although some aerospace companies have expressed interest in SCOMPI, Hydro-Québec is not in the business of selling robots to aerospace manufacturers.
The Public Utility Paradox
In the end, this is what makes Hydro-Québec such a fascinating case study in robotics research and manufacturing.
As a public utility, it has no competitors, leaving it free to form technological partnerships with others in the same industry without fear of losing some competitive advantage. At the same time, the security engendered by the company’s unique position means that IREQ and MIR Innovation have a particularly narrow focus.
The R&D work done at IREQ may never take the automation world by storm, but not every engineer needs to change to world; for many, the chance to do cool things with robots is more than enough.
For more information, visit the Hydro-Québec website.