The 21st century canary in the coal mine is a robot dog named Spot

GLEN ALLEN – Coal miners had their canaries to detect deadly carbon monoxide before the gas could defeat them.

Today, with the demise of coal, nuclear power plants are turning to a 21st-century warning system to protect workers from radiation: a robot dog named Spot.

“You can’t see the radiation,” said Joshua Bell, nuclear technology and innovation consultant at Dominion Energy. “It’s there and you can only detect it, so Spot is a really good way to understand things that you can’t see until people have to go there and experience it for themselves. ”

A 70-pound machine designed by Boston Dynamics and powered by a lithium-ion battery, the four-legged robot can be controlled remotely, equipped with up to 30 pounds of sensors, cameras and other tools, and programmed to perform tasks . Since the engineering and robotics company introduced the technology in 2019, electric utilities like Dominion have increasingly looked to it as a way to reduce radiation exposure for nuclear power plant workers.

“There are a few dozen utilities actively using Spot today, and we’re seeing more interest all the time,” Boston Dynamics director of marketing and communications Nikolas Noel said in an email. -mail.

Spot was not designed specifically for use in nuclear power plants, Noel said. Instead, “the idea was to create a general-purpose industrial robot that was highly mobile and could do useful work in a variety of areas, especially in places that might be dangerous or difficult for people to reach. people”.

“Certainly, nuclear facilities meet these criteria,” he said.

Dominion acquired its own Spot in the fall of 2021. The company, which operates the North Anna and Surry nuclear power plants in Virginia, which each employ more than 780 people, currently sources a third of its electricity for state nuclear customers and intends to keep the plants running for at least the next few decades as Virginia phases out fossil fuels.

The appeal of the robot was simple: “If I have a walking device that can use stairs and go around corners, I can reduce the amount of exposure I give people,” said Joseph Rigatti, director of programs. of Dominion nuclear technology.

Since then, the electric utility has started pilot projects with the robotic Rover to see how it (Dominion employees agree that Spot is an “it”, although “it” tends to creep into conversations after some time) can be integrated into the North Anna and Surry Plants.

Bell and Rigatti, who are experimenting with Spot from the utility’s Innsbrook facility outside Richmond, describe a range of uses for the technology. It can be programmed to walk through a plant to monitor and map radiation or heat, detect leaks, and verify test results. It can carry cameras that remote technicians can monitor. It can take instrument readings. It can help move used nuclear fuel to on-site storage facilities, as it did in a recent pilot project in Surry.

“Spot is just a cart that can move on its own,” Bell said. “We can use it with so many different instruments.”

The robot can also allow utilities to collect data they wouldn’t otherwise collect in high-radiation areas of factories where workers are prohibited except for occasional necessary checks to make sure equipment is working properly.

“Current practice is to unlock the door, a guy comes in, checks as quickly as reasonable for the information, and walks out,” Bell said. “But with Spot, you can enter, you can take the time to do thermography all over the space. We can take the time to get up close visuals of the individual components and do some real in-depth investigation and gather data that (is) valuable, but not valuable enough to risk anyone staying in that space for that long.

But despite its usefulness, worker reactions to Spot have been mixed.

Unlike other robots, the technology is not intended to replace employees. But unlike other robots, Spot doesn’t seem robotic enough. Sometimes it looks downright dog-like, able to roll sideways, trot up slopes, and stretch.

“There are just a few that just the sight makes them nervous and they walk away,” Rigatti said. “And there are others who want to stand up and pet him like you would a dog.”

Bell, who spent hours with Spot, said that even though the craft isn’t voice-controlled, he still finds himself talking to him out loud, encouraging him around corners and up stairs with a happy “Come on, Spot, we’ll go here.

Boston Dynamics’ Noel said the robot’s canine design wasn’t an accident, but a product of how the company wanted Spot to work.

“Our robots end up moving like humans and animals, not because we designed them to look like humans and animals, but because we balanced them,” he said. “Balance and dynamic movement are characteristics we’ve only seen before in animals”, and people tend to associate them “with realistic movement”.

Spot trots up a hill on the Innsbrook campus of Dominion Energy. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

It is precisely this functionality that allows Spot to perform tasks that previous generation drones or other robots were unable to undertake due to their inability to climb stairs or navigate tight spaces.

Even Spot is evolving though. During a first try at Surry, Rigatti recounted, he struggled to negotiate a sharp turn in a stairwell and fell down the stairs. Boston Dynamics has since rewritten its code specifically to improve its navigation capabilities.

“Anywhere a person can go, they want Spot to be able to go,” Rigatti said.

The robot’s operational reach at Dominion’s factories in Virginia is also expanding. During Surry’s recent pilot where Spot was used to move spent nuclear fuel, Bell said he realized that for the first time he was operating the robot about 100 feet away.

“That’s really what we’re looking for,” he said, “is to be able to sit back, stay out of the way, and let the robot do the work as much as it can.”

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