Field-Deployed Climbing Robot Does Difficult Work in Power Plant BoilersA robot developed for the largest utility in Italy tackles the job of cleaning large boiler tube walls, saving money and potentially lives.

The robot, which was developed by International Climbing Machines of Ithaca, N.Y., for Italian utility ENEL will climb up the exterior faces of the large boiler tube walls and clean the slag -- the coarse, granular, incombustible material that bonds to boiler tubes from the burning of fossil fuels -- using a special brush that cleans the slag without damaging the tubes.

Upon winning the contract from ENEL to build the first prototype, ICM brought in Helical Robotics with its magnetically held robot technology to collaborate. ICM managed the project, and designed and integrated the cleaning head and the capture shroud that captures debris from the cleaning operation and sends it to a HEPA-filtered vacuum source.

Most boiler tubes develop a thick slag on their surface, which dramatically decreases efficiency of the boiler in power plants. Conventionally, workers using various handheld methods must clean the tubes. This is difficult and dangerous, requiring scaffolding and a great deal of time. Boiler tube assemblies can be as tall as 60 meters - approximately 180', or 18 stories high.

Once the tube faces are cleaned, the next project is to integrate non-destructive sensors to the same robot and have it climb and perform the scanning to take readings of the condition of the tube wall metal. Cracks and corrosion can then be identified and repaired. Future plans would also include integrating welding or other forms of repair technology that the robot can also perform remotely.