March of the Machines
March of the Machines

Drones and robots are being increasingly used to replace humans in doing different kinds of work. They not only reduce the risk of employee injury – they also do the job faster and better. Expect to see even more of them at work in years to come.


The robots are coming. What was once science fiction has become reality – and there is every chance we will see more and more of them in coming years.


Drones and robots are already being used in place of humans to inspect power lines, wind turbines, solar panels, and giant boilers. The benefits of these unmanned technologies are clear: They improve work safety and enhance operational efficiency, especially when they replace humans in challenging and dangerous working conditions, such as in inspecting underwater equipment in generation units or transmission lines 50 metres above ground.


Today, drones and robots contribute significantly to maintaining power supply reliability as the inspections they conduct are essential to ensure the condition and integrity of the assets, which are critical for a reliable electricity supply.


CLP has been using drones and robots in its Hong Kong operations increasingly since 2018 for plant and equipment inspections. Before the introduction of robots, for instance, divers were hired to inspect cooling water culverts – underwater structures that supply sea water to power generation units for cooling. 


The structures require regular inspections as they are subjected to the continuous impact of waves and tides. Since late 2019, divers have been replaced by underwater inspection robots by CLP in Hong Kong, resulting in greater safety, shorter inspection times, and reduced asset downtime.

Diver prepares to inspect underwater equipment
Robots have replaced divers for the inspection of underwater generation systems.
The spider-like robot can climb high up the surface of a boiler tube.

Step aside, Spider-Man

Robots can also be used to inspect giant boilers. As a key component of the generation asset, a combustion boiler consumes fossil fuel and produces steam at high pressure to drive the turbo-generator and produce electricity. A combustion boiler is about 70 metres tall, equivalent to a 22-storey building, and its interior is a confined environment where regular human access is difficult.


CLP uses specially-designed robots for boiler inspections. Some of the robots look like spiders, with legs that allow them to climb to high levels on the vertical boiler tube to check its condition, while others look like racing cars, with solid wheels that can sustain the congested internal environment of a combustion boiler. They can quickly detect any faults such as surface cracks, significantly reducing the time needed for inspections while improving work safety. 

Engineers inspecting the interior of a combustion boiler
It used to be challenging for engineers to inspect the interior of a combustion boiler.
Robots with wheels for boiler inspection
Now the risky task of inspections is done by robots like this one, the product of partnership between CLP and a university.

Eyes in the sky

While robots are suitable for working underwater and in confined environments, drones are ideal for inspecting overhead lines. Overhead line towers are usually located in remote areas. After a typhoon strikes, it is safer and more convenient for drones to carry out visual inspections of overhead lines and towers to check their structural integrity and assess the danger of any damaged tress nearby falling onto them. 

CLP’s engineering team has also been working on the integration of the image data captured by drones using artificial intelligence (AI) technology to enhance vegetation management, which provides a smarter way to manage the risks of transmission lines being damaged by falling trees. The AI algorithms make tree classification easier and help establish a vegetation management inventory on a platform that integrates it with data on power asset locations, giving CLP the ability to identify hazardous trees near power lines and mitigate the risks.

Vegetation management
With the help of AI algorithms, this bird’s-eye view image captured by a drone can be used to identify potentially hazardous trees that might damage power lines.
Apart from overhead lines, drones have also been widely used in the inspection of other assets. Watch the video for more footages of CLP facilities taken by drones.

CLP, like other power utility companies, has recognised the huge benefits of robots and drones and is keen to explore other ways in which they can be used to further improve its operations. The CLP engineering team aims to expand the deployment of these technologies in more aspects of power generation and transmission, and has been working with universities engaged in research and development into new applications for robots and drones. 


By combining the advanced research and development capability of Hong Kong academics with the practical industrial expertise of CLP engineers, these partnerships look certain to flourish and accelerate the deployment of unmanned technologies in the power industry.  


In other words, the march of the machines has only just begun.