Innovation at EPRI with ideas from universities

Mario HonrubiaInnovationCase Studies

Constructing a collaborative network with research institutes and universities can be highly rewarding for innovation: What's more interesting is that the implications will not end at R&D departments but also extend to other areas of the value chain. Frauhofer and the impact it has made on the German economy is a great example in the manufacturing space (see the earlier post here). The robotic magic that EPRI has done for the Electric Power industry in the U.S. is another case of success but this time in the maintenance area. Following Senate hearings in the early 1970s on the lack of R&D supporting the power industry, all sectors of the U.S. electricity industry pooled their funds to begin an industry-wide collaborative R&D program. Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) was established in 1973 as an independent, nonprofit organization designed to manage a broad public-private collaborative research program on behalf of the electric utility industry, the industry’s customers, and society at large. Today EPRI provides services to more than 1000 energy-related organizations in 40 countries. It has more than 900 patents to its credit (Source: Wikipedia and EPRI website). Few years ago, EPRI decided to address one of the key issues in respect to quality management and maintenance in the power plant infrastructure: Accessibility. Accessibility can be a real challenge for concrete inspections of power plant infrastructure. Involving the use of extensive, hard-to-manage scaffolding, the process is often laborious and has an inherent impact on worker safety. Automated robotic approaches, however, could be safer, faster, more efficient and less expensive, allowing inspections to be performed more frequently. In an effort to explore the potential of robotic concrete inspections, EPRI ran an open call and sought solutions for technologies from various universities and research institutions. The main criteria for judging the quality of solutions were the following (According to
  • That the technology be rugged enough for outdoor deployment;
  • equipped with enough battery or independent power to operate for four days;
  • flexible enough to carry a variety of inspection devices to detect different types of flaws; and
  • able to traverse rough surfaces.
The crowd of external research partners submitted a lot of interesting and wild solutions: One proposed an electro-adhesive wall-climbing robot (think Spiderman). The other suggested a remote-controlled vertical takeoff and landing vehicle (think mini helicopter). Finally, there was also a suggestion to make a crawler; an idea which was later picked up by EPRI. A simultaneous Mapping and Location System code developed by the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany was also selected. This allowed the crawler not only to do inspections but also collect information by means of air coupling. A pilot test during the Fall of 2012 confirmed the individual capabilities of the subsystems in the crawler which led to EPRI deploying resources to make the crawler industry-ready.

EPRI and the New York Power Authority (NYPA) are demonstrating the crawler robot

Collaborative initiatives like this have been on the rise for the last two decades: That's why it's no surprise to see the size of university "technology transfer" offices growing substantially in this period. While some might argue that universities should not get too greedy and should also dedicate great resources to basic science, one thing is for sure: This trend is here to stay! Have you have come across other cases like this in your experience? Photo credit: JEMAW / Foter / CC BY Download our Engineering Crowdsourcing white paper