Innovation snakes its way into the core of nuclear culture

19 August 2021



Duke Energy explains how it is embracing innovation by using drones, robots and virtual reality to improve worker safety and plant reliability.


IT DOESN’T HAVE THE RING of ‘ready, set, go’ or ‘lights, camera, action’. But ‘batteries charged, motor functions validated, cameras online’, sounds like innovation in the Duke Energy nuclear fleet.

After working through those quick steps, the Sarcos Guardian® S remote visual inspection and surveillance robot is ready for action. Whether it is needed to squeeze into small spaces like trenches or pipes, climb I-beams or other steel equipment or inspect ‘hard to access’ areas, this snake-like robot, affectionately named L-Mo (short for Linear Motorised Observer), carries sensors and payloads of up to 10lb to provide real-time detection and visual information while keeping team members out of harm’s way.

The Guardian® S robot was recently used to perform a drainpipe inspection. The live feed captured by the Guardian S via its six 4K cameras allowed employees to inspect coatings and monitor material conditions along the 1000ft length of pipe. At the same time it marked the location of any areas of note along the way with its on- board odometer — all without employees having to stoop over or crawl through the pipe to collect the data.

This project will go down as a ‘win,’ increasing safety while reducing the time and resources needed. “Using the Guardian S robot is a safer, more efficient way to perform inspections in many work activities at our nuclear stations,” says Kevin Martin, nuclear maintenance supervisor at McGuire nuclear station.

“We developed the Guardian S robot with the goal of reducing the need to send human workers into certain spaces or environments unnecessarily,” says Kristi Martindale, chief product and marketing officer, Sarcos Robotics. “Our team is proud of this collaborative effort with Duke Energy and pleased to know the robot was able to create an even safer work environment. We look forward to continuing our relationship and identifying new ways the Guardian S robot can support Duke Energy’s workforce.”

Innovation is not just about a great idea; it requires proper implementation to adopt innovative tools and sustain use of the tool once implementation and training are complete. Jim Louy, Duke Energy nuclear director and Guardian S team lead, says he is, “looking forward to it being second nature to pull the robot off the shelf for specific tasks.” He likens it to the previous conscious decision to put on a seatbelt: “Now we automatically put it on without thinking about it as a safety device,” he says.

The team is optimistic there will be more ways to use this tool in the future.

The great thing about innovation is that it never stops.Creating a true culture of innovation, as Duke Energy is doing throughout its nuclear fleet, means embracing change. That is easier said than done. What does it look like to embrace innovation in nuclear energy?

Ownership and adoption increase when team members are empowered to help create innovative tools and they provide feedback along the way, instead of being asked to use finished products. It is imperative to innovate, but we have to implement those innovations and embrace them.

The Guardian S robot is not the only new tool in the Duke Energy toolbelt. Duke Energy’s nuclear fleet is home to an innovation and transformation team that researches, develops, tests and launches tools, applications, programs and ideas. Since its creation, the Fleet Innovation and Transformation Team has created and implemented an evolving suite of apps and programs that have improved efficiency and enabled maintenance technicians to prepare for work anytime, anywhere. These digital solutions are effective because they provide users with streamlined systems in a mobile environment. For example, the tool designed specifically for the planning team has reduced the time it takes to create a work order task by an average of 40 minutes.

The introduction of the drone programme provided an additional way for nuclear workers to perform tasks more safely.

Duke Energy nuclear workers are using indoor drones to perform inspections in confined spaces.

Normally, at least two workers are sent into a confined space to perform an inspection. By deploying an indoor drone, a trained pilot can use its high-definition infrared camera to capture the necessary footage down to the very last bolt, and send it back to teammates for review. The inspection can be completed without requiring multiple workers to enter difficult to navigate areas, increasing safety and efficiency.

Whether it is utilising digital tools and analytics to help nuclear plants run more efficiently and safely than ever for customers or using drones, robots, and virtual reality to improve worker safety and plant reliability, the nuclear team consistently looks for additional ways to ensure it is available to provide baseload, carbon-free capacity.

Duke Energy released aggressive climate goals in 2020 that emphasise innovation. No matter the scale, it is a cultural imperative to continue finding innovative ways to generate clean electricity. Brian Marrow, director of nuclear innovation puts it this way, “Innovation isn’t a one-time thing, it’s constant improvement. Some might say an evolution.”

Sarcos GuardianĀ® S is being used by Duke Energy
While drones are great for open spaces, L-Mo climbs vertical magnetic surfaces and snakes into confined spaces (Photo credit: Duke Energy)


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