If safety, quality and uptime are important — and they are — it’s time to rethink the way we build and maintain today’s electric substations. More specifically, it’s time to look at ways to involve robots in the process.

The smart energy industry is already dipping its toe in robotic waters. Several Canadian utilities are using line-crawling robots to inspect and deice transmission lines. Another robotic device has been developed to install grounding wire.

Similar innovations have the potential to offer great practical value to substation construction and maintenance. For example, robotic devices can be developed to pre-assemble bus work, cut and measure conductors, and perform other repetitive tasks. Machines can be built to place, align and bolt bus work onto structures in the field.

Automating tasks like these can speed the assembly and construction process. It’s hard to predict how much time these machines might save, but it could be substantial. A bricklaying robot currently on the market can lay 3,000 bricks a day — six times the average for a human bricklayer. And it doesn’t mind working nights and weekends.

Exploring Maintenance Benefits

The long-term value of robots might be more easily measured by how they could transform substation maintenance.

Most significantly, it’s safer to send a robot into an energized substation’s high-voltage environment than a human being. Fewer workplace incidents can add up to savings in operations and insurance costs.

Once inside, devices can be programmed to replace cables and perform other dangerous maintenance tasks, often without requiring an outage. This can save the costs associated with a shutdown and switchover of power to another substation.

Robotics and automation aren’t appropriate for everything. A robot is not likely to speed soil grading or help a concrete foundation cure faster. But for many construction and maintenance tasks, it’s only a matter of time before product developers conduct the design, development and testing needed to create this new line of robotic applications.


Substation design and construction must factor in forward-thinking scenarios, including a plan for rising sea levels. See how we worked with a client to expand in a crowded urban space near the Boston Harbor. 

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Laron Evans, PE, is an electrical engineer and diverse business manager at Burns & McDonnell. He is responsible for strengthening and expanding business diversity efforts among the firm’s power and energy clients, including fostering relationships and developing opportunities for diverse firms to contribute to utility projects.