How Will Robots and Smart Gadgets Transform Energy? You Ask, We Answer

In the ever-connected digital world, the future of energy could look quite different. We ask experts to answer reader questions about the changes underway.

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Nick DeLena adjusts his Nest, a smart thermostat by Nest Labs that automatically adjusts temperatures based on your habits, in his home on August 12, 2013, in West Newbury, Massachusetts. 

BANGALURU, India - A multibillion dollar trend is transforming the energy industry, and it’s not about drilling. It involves a different kind of bit: digital data.

Just as fracking made oil and gas cheaper to produce, a new era of digital technology is starting to cut costs and boost efficiency for all kinds of energy—whether from oil fields, wind turbines or solar farms.

This frontier includes traffic robots, inspection drones, smart meters, self-driving vehicles and other sensor-equipped machinery, all connected through the Internet of Things. Its Big Data could save energy and alleviate climate concerns. It also raises questions about privacy and security.

To explore the topic, National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge held a forum with dozens of experts last week at CeBIT, one of the world’s largest technology conferences. We asked participants to answer reader questions, submitted via Twitter. (Test your digital IQ with our quiz)

How can digital technology transform our energy future? 

Robots or Smart Gadgets?

Readers wondered whether robots will eventually displace humans. One asked whether robots will be needed more than smart gadgets—such as light bulbs or thermostats that can be remotely operated by a smart phone. Of the 26 participants who offered answers, the verdict was fairly unanimous.

“We need to start with smart gadgets as it will give an experience of digitization to each one of us,” replies Debashish Chakraborty, general manager of energy efficiency and strategic alliances at Schneider Electric. “Smart gadgets have a more overarching effect than robots.”

Leslie Dhanaraj, head of project management at software company SAP, agrees: “They will be able to touch people’s lives much faster and make an impact.”

During the forum, panelists described how major companies are using smart gadgets in the burgeoning market for home energy automation. Google bought smart thermostat maker Nest last year, and Apple has developed HomeKit, its framework for connecting smart home gadgets.

“You can now automate your home, schedule things at home with smart appliances via your iPhone, and that’s going to come to your Android as well with Google and Nest,” said Robin Jose, vice president and head of big data at India-based Reliance Jio.

“The amount of energy it [automation] saves is humongous,” said Ashootosh Chand, executive director of digital at Price Waterhouse Management Consultants, noting networked devices can automatically power down or operate when electricity prices are lowest.

Beyond the home, Jose said automation and smart meters are making the power grid more efficient in India and elsewhere. In the United States, utilities are using devices called synchrophasors to measure the voltage and current at specific spots on the grid, helping balance power loads and prevent outages.

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At National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge forum in Bangalore on October 30, 2015,  moderator and Mint editor Leslie D'Monte discusses digital technology with Alisa Choong, Shell's executive vice president of TaCIT or Technical and Competitive IT.

Pratap Padode, founder of Smart Cities Council India, said digital technology could save energy in urban areas. For example, he said sensors on garbage cans could signal when they’re full and need to be emptied, eliminating unnecessary trips by trucks to pick up trash.

Smart grid and smart city technologies are a growing global market. In a November report, Navigant Research forecasts that their annual revenue will jump from $7.3 billion this year to $20.9 billion by 2024.

Safer for Workers?

Another issue emerged in our query of readers. Could smart gadgets and robots make it safer for workers in such places as oil fields? Again, participants agreed.

“By placing remote-controlled sensors and actuators in oil fields, workers need not go to those areas where it is dangerous to work,” writes Sriganesh Rao of Mumbai-based Tata Consultancy Services.

They can be a “life saver,” adds Chakraborty of Schneider Electric. “Robotics can enhance productivity, improve efficiency and remove the human error.”

Drones or unmanned aircraft, for example, are increasingly being used to inspect not just pipelines and power lines. They’re also checking wind turbines that are often taller than the Statue of Liberty. Equipped with cameras and sensors, they’re doing what was previously done by workers in helicopters or on ropes. (Learn more about how drones are energy's new inspector gadget.)

They can reach risky places such as remote Arctic roads, and their business is taking off. By 2025, Navigant expects annual sales for drones that inspect wind turbine will reach $1.6  billion and annual sales for drones and robotics that check power grids will hit $4.1 billion.

Self-Powered Robots?

While participants discussed how digital technology could save energy, some readers want to know how they consume it. In particular, are any robots self-powered?

“Solar-powered robots could work without need for being plugged to a power source. However, this could work only for limited time indoors,” replies Rao of Tata Consultancy.

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Rebecca Hill, National Geographic's director of international marketing, welcomes participants to the Great Energy Challenge forum in Bangalore on October 30, 2015.

Several participants said solar robots, still in development, might be able to power themselves. Nandakumar Katta, head of technology of Wipro Digital, said Stanford University has demonstrated a nano robot with a “predefined lifecycle” that self destructs onces its tasks are complete.

Whatever their power source, participants said robots or other smart devices will need to collect accurate data and be able to communicate with each other.

“Technology integration is very important,” said Ruby Chhabra, senior director at EMC Corporation. “The fundamental thing is: how do you connect the dots?”

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

On Twitter: Follow Wendy Koch and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoEnergy.


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