Southern Company has a historic commitment to energy innovation. Since the 1960s, the company has invested well over $2 billion in research and development (R&D), and currently, their employees are on the forefront of delivering new ideas to build the future of energy.

Enter Spot—an agile robot. Chethan Acharya, a principal research engineer within Southern Company R&D, first discovered Spot on social media.

At the time, Acharya’s job was to find and test new sensors, analytics tools, and other solutions to help Southern Company improve operations and maintenance (O&M) activities while also lowering costs.

In the videos Acharya saw online, the yellow, quadruped robot from Boston Dynamics danced with grace and precision to “Uptown Funk.” Through Spot’s fluid movements and autonomous inspection capabilities, Acharya saw potential for the robot to help Southern Company improve its plant inspection processes.

As it turns out, Southern Company had been exploring potential opportunities with Boston Dynamics for many years. In 2018, John Brandt, technology innovation analyst for Southern Company, met with Boston Dynamics for a Spot demo robot in their nuclear division. But it wasn’t until late 2020, that conversations about a Spot pilot demonstration were underway.

Around the same time Acharya was looking into potential field applications for Spot, a manager from an operations team at Southern Power, a Southern Company subsidiary, saw a demonstration at a conference.

Forrest Waldo, team leader for Generation Support, and his team are focused on helping the company’s electric generation facilities in gas, wind and solar develop and implement their O&M strategies.

After seeing the Spot demonstration, Waldo contacted R&D to ask about the possibility to procure a Spot robot and test identified solutions.

The Generation Support, R&D and Technology Innovation teams quickly joined forces and organized a pilot program at Southern Power’s Plant Wansley, a natural gas-fueled, combined-cycle energy generation site in Heard County, Georgia.

“This project is reflective of the ‘one team,’ collaborative approach we take to innovation at Southern Company,” Brandt said.

Taking Aim at O&M Costs

Waldo sees the robot as a sophisticated data collection platform. He visited Acharya to get some experience controlling Spot and saw that the controls were “super easy to pick up.”

“This unique combination of capabilities—the ability to navigate various environments while also collecting data in a variety of ways—makes Spot a potential fit for utility sites,” Acharya said. “We have rugged terrain, with gravel, metal grating, and stairs. If a technology like Spot can go on autonomous missions, avoid obstacles, and go from one floor to another, there’s a real potential for the robot to help us with selective routine activities and allow our people to make more informed, data driven decisions.”

Specifically, Waldo’s team wanted to use Spot to gather data from field conditions and manual instrumentation and automatically deliver the data into Southern Power’s asset management platform.

The asset management platform is used by Southern Power technicians to plan preventative maintenance (PM) activities, document the results of those PMs, and note any other corrective maintenance activities that are performed on assets in the field. Some of the field data in the platform is entered manually by technicians who are often focused on more critical tasks such as operating the units. “It’s an ongoing opportunity for us to improve our efficiency,” Waldo said.

To start, Waldo and Acharya decided to test Spot’s ability to collect two important types of data: thermal readings on a heat recovery steam generator (HSRG) at the site; and photo-based readings of temperature gauges on instrumentation cabinets.

The HRSG thermal readings help technicians identify hot spots that need to be repaired during outages to improve plant efficiency, while the gauge readings help them verify that heaters in the instrumentation cabinets (which are used to prevent critical control equipment from freezing) are functioning properly.

The goal of the pilot: To show that Spot could gather this data and deliver it automatically into the asset management platform, freeing plant workers for more critical tasks.

We were able to collect and interpret images as well as integrate the data with our asset management platform. That’s huge for us because our goal is to improve the effectiveness of our plant’s people and processes. We’re trying to increase the frequency of data collection without overloading our plant technicians.

Forrest Waldo, Team Leader for Generation Support

Designing the Pilot Program

Setting up the pilot required significant collaboration across different Southern Company teams. In addition to Southern Company research and development and Southern Power’s Generation Support team, project leaders needed to loop in Southern Company’s technology organization as well as Southern Power’s Plant Wansley team.

Brian Groark, a Southern Company technology manager stated, “We focused our proof of concepts in a ‘pilot worthy’ manner, not attempting to build an enterprise-class infrastructure that could be too expensive and time-consuming for a proof of concept. We adjusted our expectations to say, ‘Here’s what it would take to operate this technology at one power plant. We can scale this to an enterprise-class infrastructure when the time and opportunity presents itself.’”

Project leaders opted to test Spot on one of the plant’s several HRSGs, as well as a set of temperature gauges, during the fall of 2022.

The HRSGs at Plant Wansley are 100-foot-tall structures with grating stairs and platforms, and Waldo recorded a path for Spot to follow during its inspections.

When Southern Power employees perform their rounds on the HRSG, they walk the site while using an infrared camera to detect hot spots. To replicate this process, Spot took infrared images at 60 different points, using Spot CAM+IR. The data was then fed into the organization’s cloud environment, with any reading above a certain temperature threshold triggering a work order.

The freeze detection rounds were more challenging with Spot photographing the individual analog gauges and uploading the data into a cloud environment. The TO team then used machine learning algorithms to analyze the photographs and continuously train and improve the machine learning mode, subsequently enhancing the accuracy of the readings, which were then reported to the asset management platform.

“Our goal was for Spot to collect these images out in the field, use computer vision models to analyze the images with 100 percent accuracy, and then document that data in our asset management platform,” Waldo stated.

Pilot Learnings

The project team explored two use cases to determine the viability of Spot in day-to-day monitoring. Despite the various terrain at Plant Wansley, Spot was able to navigate some of the designated rounds. Spot collected thermal images and regular photographs and then integrated with Southern Company’s cloud storage, data processing and asset management platform.

“We were able to collect and interpret images as well as integrate the data with our asset management platform,” said Waldo. “That’s huge for us because our goal is to improve the effectiveness of our plant’s people and processes. We’re trying to increase the frequency of data collection without overloading our plant technicians.”

“At Plant Wansley, we have fewer than 40 employees,” Waldo added. “Our operators serve as maintenance technicians, system owners, and project managers. This puts pressure on the small group of employees who perform these types of routine tasks. Piloting this option for collecting images and integrating all that data into our business is important for operational process optimization.”

Looking Ahead

Waldo and his colleagues are considering additional use cases across Southern Company’s nationwide reach. Groark hopes the lessons from the pilot program will eventually be applied across the utility’s larger retail operations, and Brandt looks forward to continuing and expanding the partnership as further innovations develop. R&D is looking into opportunities to use Spot at nuclear plants.

“Innovation is the way that companies and people constantly get better,” Waldo said. “The proof-of-concept demonstrated that the technology has potential, and it sparked ideas about how it can be used in the future. The success of this pilot speaks to effective collaboration: both between internal teams, and between Southern Company and Boston Dynamics”