Looking at plants the smart way11 January 2023
With the corona pandemic changing the way plant inspections are carried out, more and more nuclear engineers are turning to smart glasses. Able to combine the observations of on-site specialists with the experience of international experts, the technology saves both time and costs
As the Covid pandemic hit all areas of life, strict travel restrictions, varying from country to country, caused great uncertainty and even delays in many different business processes. It soon became clear that such restrictions were completely unpredictable. For the energy sector, and nuclear power in particular, this is a potentially critical challenge. Comprehensive inspections are needed on a regular basis because they reveal safety risks and form the basis for necessary maintenance work. The people who carry out inspections are highly specialised engineers who serve customers all over the world and to execute this function they must be on site in an appropriate time frame.
Intelligent data glasses have emerged as a solution to this problem. With their help, engineers on site may be guided remotely by colleagues in their respective locations, irrespective of any travel restrictions. The smart glasses connect them both visually and aurally for inspections and maintenance work. In addition, text, video, or images can be transmitted to the glasses and displayed on their high-resolution screen.
TU¨V SU¨D has so far used smart glasses for the inspection of equipment for nuclear power plants, among other installations. Five hundred experts continuously inspect both the supply chain and operating nuclear plants as well as assist in their decommissioning where necessary. Teams from Germany and other TU¨V SU¨D locations around the world use this equipment and their experience to ensure the safety of nuclear plants and the components used within them.
One hundred pairs of glasses
To ensure stable and quality-oriented inspection for several customers, TU¨V SU¨D acquired one hundred assisted reality devices from the US manufacturer RealWear. The HMT-1 model glasses are durable and robust in design and materials. They work with the SHARE app from German software vendor oculavis, which offers a combined solution with RealWear. The devices come with step-by-step instructions and self-guided augmented reality workflows. These are part of the software installed on the system and help wearers perform simple operations on their own. The HMT-1 is also suitable for troubleshooting, production control, and education and training.
Work in a power plant is sometimes subject to harsh conditions, for example due to noise. If a machine room is inspected, hearing protectors can be coupled with smart glasses via an interface. In addition to the option of muting the glasses’ microphone, noise suppression can also be activated – so two-way communication remains possible. Industrial smart glasses should also withstand wet and dusty conditions. For this reason, the glasses can be worn under protective eyewear or integrated into a safety helmet. Personal protective equipment minimises the risks to employees that a harsh working environment often entails. The voice-controlled user interface offers further safety benefits. It ensures that the wearer’s hands are free, and he or she can concentrate on the actual inspection process.
Before an inspection takes place remotely though, a couple of questions need to be addressed. Is a remote inspector available near the job site? Can the customer fully brief the inspector – and are all required technical documents available and valid? Furthermore, the customer must agree to a remote inspection and this approach must meet all the regulatory requirements defined by national and international authorities. Another key validation point is to ensure the glasses and their software can be integrated into the existing IT infrastructure.
Taking a smart approach
Having addressed these key questions, to ensure that remote inspections are possible the next step is to check the technical requirements. To connect smart glasses, the internet connection must be fast and reliable.
Since a remote inspection sometimes involves several hours of moving images, the amount of data that must be transferred is easily underestimated. In general, a bandwidth of 4Mbit/s (both up and down) is sufficient to ensure an inspection without any technical interruptions. In any case, the Wi-Fi or LTE connection at the site must be tested for compatibility in advance – remotely, for example, using a common web browser.
Evaluating several additional conditions that must be met for the remote inspection to proceed is also important:
- The type of data backup must be agreed with the data protection officer on site.
- Data security measures, such as blurring faces, are taken.
- All technical documents are reviewed regarding completeness and validity.
- The camera movement is smooth and the recorded movements slow.
- Ensuring data transfer and data security requirements are met.
Because much of the inspected site’s data is transmitted online, data security is critical especially in times of hybrid warfare, which also affects critical infrastructure. All data should be stored on servers that meet the security criteria of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). TU¨V SU¨D, for example, uses secured servers in accordance with the international standard ISO/IEC 27001 – Information Security Management Standard. Prior to a remote inspection, the customer must give permission for audio and video transmissions. On-site security measures should be reviewed by a data protection officer, if possible. He or she may need to specify privacy measures such as face blurring or approve a backup.
Cutting costs in a climate-friendly way
TU¨V SU¨D has been able to put the smart glasses to good use for remote inspections at nuclear facilities. Their application saved money, time, and greenhouse gas emissions. For a recent project with a nuclear power plant equipment supplier, experts for welding technology, leak tightness and Non-Destructive Testing connected remotely with five inspectors from TU¨V SU¨D Energietechnik. Together they inspected all critical components using digital manuals and schematics. Despite lockdown and travel restrictions they saved half a day of flight time and seven international flights worth around EUR4,000 as well as 20 tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Even without lockdown measures in place, smart glasses pay off in terms of the economic environment as well as curbing the environmental impact of the inspection process. Distances, travel restrictions or cost inefficiencies will continue to be a decisive argument. According to a Fortune Business Insights analysis, the global inspection, repair, and maintenance (IRM) market was down 7.2% in 2020 when compared with 2019 figures. Nevertheless, the IRM market will recover from the pandemic: growth from about US$43bn in 2022 to nearly $73bn by the end of this decade is expected. In addition, the huge trend toward digitisation in most industries suggests that the value of remote inspection technology will increasingly be recognised and their application will rapidly increase.
Authors: Christoph Gatzen, Head of Instrumentation, Control and Electrical Division, TU¨V SU¨D Energietechnik; Simon Lemin, Director of Industry Service Division, TU¨V SU¨D Greater China