“DEWA announces employment of 5 robots as staff” reads the recent headline that caught our attention.
Such is a sign of things to come as DEWA (Dubai Electricity and Water Authority), as a forward looking utility, innovates with new technologies in its business – in this case, as part of its efforts to “enrich the experience of customers” and to offer “seven-star quality services at its customer happiness centres.”
Alongside the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality, robotics is a natural addition to the technology armoury. Like these, it’s not new. Since as far back as the 1960s robots have been used increasingly in the automotive industry, for example.
What is new is the potential that is now enabled, particularly with advanced AI.
In the energy sector, examples of recent applications have included the use of robots for inspection of transmission lines and monitoring of gas pipelines and they have been proposed to deploy microgrids in remote or disaster zones.
A number of utilities also have started using drones for applications such as transmission line and wind turbine blade inspection.
Robots at DEWA
So what will DEWA’s new robots – each with an employee number, starting with 99000099 – do?
According to DEWA, its recently inaugurated ‘Future Centre for Customer Happiness’ is the first integrated smart customer happiness centre in Dubai relying on AI and robotics to provide “smart and innovative services to customers.”
‘Happiness’ is the buzzword in Dubai, forming the basis of the Smart Dubai ‘smart city’ initiative to “make Dubai the happiest city on earth”.
As a public utility DEWA is key to smart activities in the energy and water sectors.
In further support of these activities DEWA has run a robotics competition which involved a total of 900 students from all levels competing for a share of AED 135,000 ($37,000).
Notably also, earlier this year DEWA launched a ‘virtual employee’ named Rammas on its website, app and Amazon Alexa system. According to DEWA it is the first government organisation to launch an online chatbot in both Arabic and English.
“Rammas can respond to an unlimited number of enquiries in record time and is making significant progress in AI technology.”
The Dubai government has had a target to reduce the number of visitors to government offices by 80% by 2018.
Robotics in UK
Another country where robotics is being advanced in the energy sector is the UK.
With its access challenges, the offshore energy sector is one area where robotics has potential. A new project named ORCA (Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets) Hub aims to develop robotics solutions for inspection, maintenance, ertification and decommissioning of offshore assets.
According to a statement the £36m initiative led by the Edinburgh Centre of Robotics of Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh will create robot-assisted asset inspection and maintenance technologies that are capable of making autonomous and semi-autonomous decisions and interventions across aerial, topside and marine domains.
“The ORCA Hub's activities are designed to lead advancement in key robotics and AI technologies that will create a step change in the current practices of offshore inspection, repair and maintenance,” says project director Professor David Lane from Heriot-Watt University.
The extreme environments experienced in offshore wind as well as in nuclear energy, space and deep mining are also the focus of new support from the UK government.
In November £68m funding was announced by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for research to develop robots and AI able to take on jobs in these environments.
Almost £45m of this funding will be used to support four new research hubs at the universities of Manchester, Birmingham and Surrey and Heriot-Watt. In addition, they will receive a further £52m from commercial and international industry partners.
“These new hubs will draw on the country’s research talent to nurture new developments in the field of robotics and provide the foundations on which innovative technologies can be built,” says Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which will manage the hubs.
“The resulting outcomes from this research will allow us to explore environments that are too dangerous for humans to enter without risking injury or ill-health.”
Robots in energy
The International Federation of Robotics has identified major areas for growth in the service robotics market as maintenance, security and rescue. As the examples discussed above show, these also will be the main applications in the energy sector, at least in the immediate future.
In its recent study in drones and robotics for transmission and distribution operations, Navigant Research points to the potential of these technologies to deliver significant gains in the three core drivers for change in utility operations – speed, savings and safety.
With this potential, Navigant projects exponential growth in the technologies over the coming decade, with the market growing at a compound annual rate of 23% from $2bn in 2017 to reach $13.2bn by 2026. The largest market for deployment is Asia Pacific but high growth rates are also expected in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America because of the low current penetration.
In the near term, deployment is likely to be limited by regulatory, financial, and technological barriers, while aviation related barriers also could limit the use of drones by utilities, according to Navigant. With the financial barriers, utilisation of robotics as a service models is expected to double in most regions.