They look like the robots from Pixar movie Wall-E and understand commands from their human bosses.

And these machines could soon help Kiwis living rurally get their lights back on quicker.

It can take hours for Transpower technicians to arrive at remote sites to fix faults during a power outage, particularly in bad weather, but advancements in robotics could mean outages could be restored quicker and more efficiently.

The power company and Massey University have started a four-week trial for two robots, named Wall-E and Eve, based at their Albany site, Transpower's acting grid service delivery general manager Mark Ryall said.

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The trial will see the robots put through their paces to test their capabilities and potential for real-world use beyond testing.

All going well the robots will live on site in a charging shed at some of Transpower's most remote substations.

With HD cameras, infrared technology, and sensors the robots will be able to assess a problem before sending a human out to inspect.

The robots also feature a hydraulic neck and wheels that allow them to traverse gravel and the outside of a substation, to observe the state of vital power equipment.


They will be controlled remotely by someone back at one of Transpower's regional offices using a modified Xbox 360 controller or a laptop.

Transpower's Mark Ryall says the robots, if proven ready for real work, will potentially save on money and reduce time with the lights out. Photo / NZH Focus
Transpower's Mark Ryall says the robots, if proven ready for real work, will potentially save on money and reduce time with the lights out. Photo / NZH Focus

Before rural robots, a technician would have to go out to the site to assess the issue and see what tools would be required for the job.

That could mean returning to pick up gear or sending another technician out, Ryall said.

The robot trial was the result of five years of work between the company and Massey University and had spanned five designs and "countless" upgrades and modifications.

Ryall said the company had 174 substations nationwide and 25 of those were remote from most of their workforce.

That meant, on average, a technician had to travel 90 minutes before arriving at the site.

"Often most of our workers are in the cities and the towns. Manapouri is one of the most remote sites that can take six hours to organise a boat trip across the lake and get someone on site."

Manapouri was one of the first sites they were looking at using robots for, given its significance to the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter.

The first trip for one of the robots would be to Tuai, 140km east of Gisborne and a 4-hour return trip by road.

"These robots have the potential to be our eyes on the ground, as they can be remotely controlled by a Transpower regional operator or engineer anywhere in New Zealand."

The robots have the potential to save on money and make quicker decisions, says Transpower's Mark Ryall. Photo / Tom Dyton
The robots have the potential to save on money and make quicker decisions, says Transpower's Mark Ryall. Photo / Tom Dyton

One robot will be based at Albany Substation while the second will be laboratory-based to undergo any upgrades that the trial in Albany highlights.

IOSYS robotics engineers Mitchell Hampton and Hayden Wilson are two of five people who have been constructing the built-for-purpose machines for the past six years.

Wilson said the two robots had progressed from a basic build-your-own kit robot to more advanced models over the past five years.

They currently weigh around 70kg.

Wilson explained they had been working under Professor Johan Potgieter, who is currently consulting research with HIEFF Engine and Chrysler in Detroit.

He was in China looking for manufacturers of the machines when the Herald spoke to the engineers.

Beyond just responding to faults across the 174 stations, there were thousands of alarms sounding for small issues.

The robots could ascertain if an alarm was valid or false which would save time and the hassle of sending someone out.

"It has a potential to save on money and make quicker decisions," Ryall said.

Beyond their current capabilities, Transpower saw potential for the robots to be used to inspect a substation and with machine learning, it could also identify the progression of erosion by carrying out inspections.

"If you could take a video of substation equipment you can apply visual recognition across it and you can pick up deterioration.

"The robot could be used for regular inspections and then use it to base our maintenance programmes off."

There were opportunities to use the robot in the future for a host of functions, he said.

It wasn't replacing anybody, however, instead enabling workers to work smarter and more efficiently.

Transpower was also looking into the viability of drones to survey damage or inspect power lines at heights, which would remove the need for a linesman to be up high for anything other than power restoration or to fix something.