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We are using robotics and reinforcement learning (a form of artificial intelligence) to take our asset inspection to a new level. Spot, a robotic dog, represents the pinnacle of converging technologies. We are adapting the robot dog to suit our organisation by developing customised software and recording equipment. This is an investment to improve safety in the field and to develop skills within our organisation for the use of future drone technologies.

The program is still in the development phase and our aim is to have a real-world trial by early 2023.

Why we use robotics to inspect powerlines?

Current regulations do not allow the use of flying drones beyond the pilot's line of sight for asset inspections. But, eventually this may be allowed and we need to prepare for when this happens. A land-based drone or robot is our best opportunity to do that. We can develop in-house capabilities, upskill our staff and get familiar with the technology now.

Robots we use

Robot How we use it

A Spot robot dog from the Boston Dynamics company. SA Power Networks is developing the Spot robot as a tool to inspect assets.

Spot (The Agile Mobile Robot by Boston Dynamics)

Spot will move from Stobie pole to Stobie pole and take multiple images of the poles, powerlines and transformers as it moves along a street. Common issues to identify may include low lines, damaged poles, and ageing equipment. Spot will be able to navigate through rough terrain and areas that may be dangerous for staff.


How does it work?

We’re currently training Spot. We’re using the programmable application software development kit (SDK) to teach Spot how to complete the tasks we need it to do. This is our first piece of artificial intelligence (AI) driven robotics software that we’re developing in-house. We’re using a relatively new technique called reinforcement learning. It’s a form of artificial intelligence (AI).

Reinforcement learning for Spot is much like teaching a pet. In the same way as you give a pet treats to teach it a trick, Spot is rewarded with points when it does what we want. Spot’s training is like playing a video game. If it does a good thing, such as take a photo of a pole, it gets a positive reward, and if it does a bad thing such as go onto the road, it gets a negative reward. It is always trying to get a high score.

We will provide Spot with geographic information such as latitude and longitude and Spot will be able to work out where to navigate. It can see the poles, navigate towards, and take pictures of them. Spot will wear a high-resolution camera that can pan, tilt, and zoom, to photograph the assets and surrounding environment.

This offloads the task of collecting asset imagery from our Asset Inspectors to Spot. This frees them up to apply their knowledge and skills on inspecting the assets, and for raising any maintenance requests as needed.

Meet Spot video



Frequently asked questions

No. Spot is usually controlled by a project team member using a controller, such as during our public demos.

In our field trials, we designate specific Stobie poles and instruct Spot to navigate towards them to take photos. During these trials, Spot will plot its own paths around the pole, but we retain controls to override or stop Spot at any time.

Field trials are currently only conducted internally at SA Power Networks facilities.

No. Spot, other robots, drones and artificial intelligence are designed to complement our workforce.

Robotics and AI are the next step in our tools becoming smarter, but we still need people to drive the tools and apply the technology in effective and efficient ways.

We’re continuing with our testing at SA Power Networks facilities on Spot’s reinforcement learning capabilities. In 2023, we expect to be able to trial Spot in a real-world scenario.

Drones and Spot are complementary. They each have their own advantages when it comes to helping us inspect our assets. Spot, for example, can carry more weight than a drone, is much quieter, and doesn’t mind a little rain.

Yes! We believe in empowering our workforce with digitally-enabled work practices and people-focused technology. Robotics play an important and growing role in that. We have a continuous innovation pipeline and high-quality graduate programs. Keep an eye on our careers page and social channels for updates.

We’re currently limiting Spot to looking at Stobie poles and pole-top assets. Stobie poles are iconic to South Australia and visually distinctive, making them suitable for artificial intelligence to learn to identify.

No. We’re not sharing any data Spot collects with other organisations, and Spot is only capturing data about our infrastructure.

Other ways we inspect powerlines

Powerline inspections by helicopter

Powerline inspections by aerial drones