Since 2022, Spot from Boston Dynamics has been performing inspections at the Simmering power plant. It is the first quadruped robot used in Europe for routine power plant operations, reporting technical faults autonomously. Equipped with numerous sensor payloads, Spot helps to ensure the energy supply to more than 800,000 households in Vienna. Employees at the power plant operator Wien Energie affectionately call Spot “Energy Dog”.

The task: Optimizing maintenance and safety at the Simmering power plant

Simmering is Austria’s largest power plant and generates electrical energy and district heating from various primary energy sources such as natural gas and biomass. The power plant is operated by Wien Energie and supplies over 800,000 households and 7,000 business customers with electricity, achieving an efficiency of 81 percent. With more than a hundred-year history, Simmering is not only one of Austria’s largest power plants, but among the oldest.

Throughout its history, it has been repeatedly modernized, but to this day, still uses many analogue displays to record the condition of the power plant during energy and heat production. The idea of automating manual readouts was born to support the inspection teams—combined with condition-based monitoring using a thermal imaging camera as well as gas sensors to detect hazards and improve the air quality.

Spot has fully met our expectations…even during the pilot phase, the Energy Dog detected a steam leak at 400 to 500 degrees.

Matthias Kahr, Data Scientist

Why Did Wien Energie Choose the Robot Dog Spot?

In 2017, Wien Energie engaged with the topic of AI and drones for the industrial inspection of wind turbines, chimneys, and photovoltaic systems as part of an innovation challenge. Wien Energie put together a team of its own employees and external specialists for this task. It worked so well that Wiener Stadtwerke and Wien Energie founded Smart Inspection GmbH as a spin-off.

“Since 2019, we have been working with Wien Energie to develop efficient inspection solutions,” explains Peter Liebhart, Key Account and Sales Manager at Smart Inspection. “When it was decided in 2021 to also research a solution for inspection inside power plants in addition to drones, we first explored the market in terms of available technologies and the most useful way to do it.”

“Permanently installed surveillance cameras were ruled out relatively early on because the operating facilities are very large and many units would have been needed, which of course would have had an impact on costs,” explains Matthias Kahr, currently responsible for the project as a Data Scientist at Wien Energie. “Also, using drones indoors is anything but easy due to navigation, and outdoors it would have required additional approval from aviation safety.”

A mobile, wheel-based inspection robot could have been a solution, but there are many stairs in the power plant facilities, and in the comparatively harsh environment, there may well be obstacles on the ground, such as large hoses, which are difficult or impossible for a vehicle to negotiate. An inspection robot moving on four legs, using artificial intelligence that can independently avoid obstacles, turned out to be the ideal solution. The agile mobile robot Spot from Boston Dynamics was still relatively new on the market at the time and, according to Matthias Kahr and Peter Liebhart, best met the required specifications.

Peter Liebhart, Key Account and Sales Manager at Smart Inspection
Data Scientist Matthias Kahr from Wien Energie with the Energy Dog

Spot’s Tasks in the Power Plant

Thanks to its multiple interfaces, Spot from Boston Dynamics offers a high degree of flexibility, allowing Wien Energie’s inspection team to use a wide variety of sensors. In addition to a 360-degree camera, Wien Energie’s Energy Dog is equipped with an RGB camera with up to 30x zoom, a thermal imaging camera, and special sensor technology for detecting different gases.

Equipped in this way, the robot performs tasks such as automatically taking pictures of fire-safety systems (such as fire extinguishers), reading fill levels and analog displays (such as pressure, tank levels, and engine oil levels) at predetermined locations, and measuring air quality (e.g. next to a boiler, with a special focus on carbon monoxide, natural gas, ammonia, as well as carbon dioxide). These pictures are then analyzed using software developed by Smart Inspection. As soon as the measured values deviate from preset target values, an alarm is triggered and an inspection team investigates the matter.

Advantages of Autonomous Inspections

One key advantage is the Energy Dog’s permanent and autonomous operation, 24/7. The robot runs its trained route autonomously and returns to the charging station automatically. Originally, the team planned, programmed, and trained five longer main inspection routes for the Energy Dog. After each route, the Energy Dog was to return to its charging station and recharge. Then, as soon as it had sufficient battery capacity again, it was able to tackle the next predetermined inspection route or repeat its last route.

100 Small Routes Instead of Five Main Routes

However, according to Data Scientist Matthias Kahr, changes to the routes require a certain amount of programming, leading to subsequent changes in the concept. It is now also possible to train various consecutive shorter routes, without the need for a loading process after each route. Spot only searches for the charging station independently when its energy is running low. In practice, 100 mini-inspection routes, where the robot automatically continues with the next route, proved to be much more useful, because it is quick and easy to delete or add a mini-route.

Energy Dog on stairs, equipped with a 360-degree camera, a thermal imaging camera, and a multi-gas detector.
Energy Dog on stairs, equipped with a 360-degree camera, a thermal imaging camera, and a multi-gas detector.

Documentation Enables Forecasts

Another advantage is the permanent documentation of readings, which enables the Wien Energie team to identify trends or deviations even when values are within the normal range—which in turn provides insight on correlations and enables forecasts.

According to Matthias Kahr, the thermal imaging camera has become the most important inspection tool, because mechanical components often heat up significantly before a failure Yet purely optical inspection with the 360-degree camera can also provide important clues—for example, in detecting liquids or puddles on the floor that indicate a leak.

Making Operations Safer with a New Teammate

“The Energy Dog provides high-tech support at the power station and highlights the innovative drive of Wien Energie. This special device is the first in Europe to be deployed in routine operations in a power plant. The Energy Dog learns from its human colleagues, stores important knowledge and makes everyday operations easier and safer for our personnel. This allows them to focus all their expertise on complex tasks,” explains Wien Energy General Manager, Karl Gruber.

Data Scientist Matthias Kahr adds that the use of such forward-looking technology also makes the company more attractive to young employees: “Wien Energie expects this to have definite advantages in the course of the generational change and the current shortage of skilled workers in the increasingly difficult search for qualified junior staff.”

The Energy Dog is welcomed by the Wien Energie team
The Energy Dog is welcomed by the Wien Energie team: Managing director Karl Gruber, Christian Vettinger, Alexander Kirchner, Michaela Killian, Matthias Wurm, Jan-Ove Wiesner (research intern).

Experience and Outlook

“Spot has fully met our expectations,” explains Matthias Kahr. “It can actually walk autonomously, climb stairs and open doors by radio. And even during the pilot phase, the Energy Dog detected a steam leak at 400 to 500 degrees.“

Peter Liebhart from integrator Smart Inspection is also extremely satisfied with the experience of this project: “The use of Spot at the Simmering power plant has shown the full potential of the agile mobile robot in the energy supply sector. The acceptance of the quadruped robot by the employees was also consistently positive, and further deployments in other power plants are already planned. We therefore see the use of this technology in maintenance and servicing in the energy supply sector as a great opportunity to increase safety for employees and residents—not only in Austria, but throughout Europe and worldwide.”