North Sea Deployment Shows Robots Can Be Commercially Useful
As much as we like writing about quadrupedal robots, it’s always been a little bit tricky to see how they might be commercially useful in the near term outside of specialized circumstances like disaster response. We’ve seen some hints of what might be possible from Boston Dynamics, which has demonstrated construction inspection with SpotMini, but that’s not necessarily a situation where a robot is significantly better than a human.
In September, ANYbotics brought one of their industrial quadrupeds, ANYmal, to an offshore power distribution platform in the North Sea. It’s very remote, and nothing much happens there, but it still requires a human or two to wander around checking up on stuff, a job that nobody wants.
A crucial task for energy providers is the reliable and safe operation of their plants, especially when producing energy offshore. Autonomous mobile robots are able to offer comprehensive support through regular and automated inspection of machinery and infrastructure. In a world’s first pilot installation, transmission system operator TenneT tested the autonomous legged robot ANYmal on one of the world’s largest offshore converter platforms in the North Sea.
The video does a good job of showing why a quadruped like ANYmal is ideal for these kinds of industrial environments. While it’s mostly flat, empty corridors, there are some stairs and tight spaces where ANYmal’s legs and adaptive shape are advantageous. A humanoid would almost certainly struggle, and while a tracked platform might do better, there are lots of small obstacles that ANYmal can simply step over. Since speed and efficiency aren’t a huge concern, a quadruped offers a good combination of the versatility of legs with the consistent stability of tracks or wheels.
Having said that, there are a few situations even in this demo video where ANYmal is not ideal the poor little guy is on the short side, which makes it hard to read some of the gauges and indicators, and it looks like some electrical cabinets have to be left open for inspection since the robot can’t open them itself. These things could be solved without much work with a minimal redesign to environments like this to make them a little bit more robot friendly, which seems like not too much to ask to be able to have a robot patrolling out there instead of a human.
The obvious issue that ANYmal does have, of course, is that it’s much more of a problem detector than a problem solver it can let you know if something’s wrong, but there’s not a lot that it can do to fix things. So, it’s still not about replacing humans completely, but rather about making their jobs suck less.