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Smart Robots Enabled by Artificial Intelligence Could One Day Inspect and Repair Power Plant Boilers

NETL is partnering with the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) to develop artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled robots capable of evaluating and repairing power plant boilers, ensuring safer and more affordable energy production.

Boilers are one of the most important components of a power plant, as they are responsible for superheating water to create the steam that drives energy-producing turbines. However, it is difficult for humans to perform critical inspection and repair of these components.

Robotic crawlers already exist, but unlike the AI-enabled robots of this project, those machines are typically incapable of repair, are not fully autonomous and are not equipped with AI to enable smart autonomy and predictive analysis. The AI algorithms developed in the CSM project will enable the robot to perform 3D mapping and information fusion as well as spatiotemporal crack tracking, map updating and smart damage analysis by robot learning.

“Successful robotic inspection will limit or eliminate the need to send inspectors to assess difficult-to-access or
hazardous areas,” said Anthony Zinn, who manages the CSM project for NETL. “The robots will also allow automated live inspection, reduce risk to human operators during maintenance or unplanned outages, and enable smart collection of comprehensive and well-organized data. The impact of this new capability will be increased boiler reliability, usability and efficiency.”

Boilers often include large sections of vertical structures, like wall surfaces, which must be maintained to ensure proper operation. Instead of constructing scaffolding to inspect and repair this area, the AI-enabled robots currently being developed by CSM use magnetic treads to effortlessly scale the high, steep walls of the boilers, potentially reducing the costs associated with inspection and repair.

“As the robots crawl along, they can employ a variety of nondestructive evaluation sensors to perform real-time inspection of boiler furnace walls,” Zinn said. “If they find a crack, they can then operate repair devices to make an immediate repair, all while using AI to enable smart data analysis and autonomy.”

This project is sponsored by NETL’s University Training and Research program within Crosscutting Research and contributes to FE’s overarching goals to develop and commercialize advanced technologies that provide reliable and affordable solutions to America's energy challenges.