Tomago Aluminium Trialling New Robot Technology

April 12, 2022

Unlike the science fiction version ‘K-9’, ‘Spot’ the Robot has four legs and has recently started work at Tomago Aluminium.

The launch of Spot made Tomago, Australia’s largest aluminium smelter, the world’s first aluminium smelter to trial the new robot technology, with hands-on demonstrations illustrating its seemingly limitless capabilities.

Costing around $200,000 each and weighing a little over 32 kilograms, the dog-like Spot, one of the newest developments in robotics, has amazing agility and can navigate all manner of terrain with exceptional mobility, carrying-out routine inspections in difficult conditions or confined spaces.

“Using Spot, previously hazardous tasks requiring specially-trained people in protective clothing can be done easily with remote operators controlling Spot via tablets while it safely performs its tasks,” said Business Improvement Superintendent, Michelle Whyte.

Spot, developed by American robotics company Boston Dynamics, was put through a series of tests in the smelter’s electrical substation and potrooms, with employees taking turns at the controls to guide the robot across a variety of obstacles including uneven ground, water puddles and stairs.

Part of Spot’s Tomago workout also included being subjected to strong magnetic fields to ensure it was unaffected by electronic interference.

The robotic visitor passed the tests with flying colours.

As part of the testing regime, Spot was programmed to take a solo automated walk around the switchyard following a ‘learned’ path, meaning no one was physically needed to control the robot while it was carrying-out its task.

Tomago’s substation electricians were able to send the robot into the switchyard to perform thermal imaging inspections while livestreaming images from Spot’s built-in stereo cameras to their laptops and tablets.

Working with Spot proved to be an exciting experience for those involved with the live testing, with substation supervisor Shane McDonald describing the experience as “eye-opening”.

“We were amazed at how autonomous it was,” Mr McDonald said. “Spot was very stable across all areas of the yard. Gravel, cable pits and stairs; nothing presented a problem for Spot. We put a bin in front of him and he just stepped around it.”

Mr McDonald added that Spot would greatly benefit the business with a wide range of uses including automated thermography, high-resolution photo and video work and accessing areas which currently require isolating before employees can safely access them.

As a bonus, Spot is able to carry up to fourteen kilograms of equipment and power it up, saving technicians the need to run cables or carry portable power with them.

Spot also has a backpack that can scan in 3D, allowing it to see how machinery is degrading over time, among other things.

One of Spot’s biggest advantages though is its ability to be sent into hazardous or hard to reach areas, making it capable of walking inside ducting to inspect for wear, detecting and investigating spills, observing live switching and carrying-out measurements and inspections in hot or difficult conditions.

Tiphanie Costeur, interface design and development engineer for Brisbane-based Corematic, Boston Dynamic’s Australian agent, described Spot as “a very new development” in robotics and said the version demonstrated at Tomago was the Spot ‘Enterprise’ model, the very latest variant.

“Spot has many uses and can be used for a variety of tasks. There is really no limitation for Spot’s use – creativity is the key,” Ms Costeur said, suggesting the wide variety of uses across the Tomago site could ultimately have as many as four of the robots working there, one for each department.

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