Will robots replace human inspectors? According to GE, perhaps…

First the robots came for manufacturing jobs. Then they went after skilled labor. Now, robots are going after inspectors.

Reuters’ Alwyn Scott reports on a new business line at GE dedicated to a mostly automated process of inspecting buildings and other facilities:

General Electric Co has begun testing autonomous drones and robotic “crawlers” to inspect refineries, factories, railroads and other industrial equipment with an eye on capturing a bigger slice of the $40 billion companies around the globe spend annually on inspections.

In trials with customers, aerial drones and robots are able to move around and inside remote or dangerous facilities while photographing corrosion or taking temperature, vibration or gas readings that can be analyzed by computer algorithms and artificial intelligence, Alex Tepper, head of business development at Avitas Systems, a startup GE formed for this business, told Reuters.

Some notes:

  • First and foremost, this is for petroleum, transportation and energy distribution systems
  • GE will not be replacing all human involvement, though it will be leveraging artificial intelligence to further improve the inspection technology
  • IBM has already proven the use of AI in detecting manufacturing defects

The primary driver for developing this capability is attrition among experienced inspectors. This parallels what is happening in the construction industry: highly experienced skilled professionals are retiring, yet few younger folks are drawn to the industry.