Robots designed to inspect power lines

Jun 10, 2010 by Lin Edwards report

( -- Overhead transmission lines traverse thousands of kilometers, often crossing remote areas. Inspecting the often ageing lines and the vegetation near them is an important aspect of maintenance, but it can be extremely expensive and is sometimes dangerous. Now a robot has been designed to travel along transmission lines, covering 130 km of line at least twice a year, inspecting the line and checking for high-risk vegetation.

Scientists at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in the US are developing the , which looks a little like a solar car, is around two meters long and weighs about 65 kilograms. It is designed to clamp onto the shield wire, which is above the main transmission line and protects it from lightning strikes. The robot will “crawl” along the wire on rollers at about five kilometers per hour, powered by energy harvested from the shield wire and with and batteries as backup. The robot can cross obstacles such as cable spacers and suspension clamps and can maneuver around pylons (towers) using cables built in (or retrofitted).

The robot is equipped with sensors and a high-definition camera to detect obstacles such as overgrown trees, and it can analyze the images and compare them with previous images to see if anything has changed. It will also be able to use images taken at two locations and use parallax measurements to calculate clearances between conductors, trees and other objects. Overgrown trees are the major cause of electrical outages, so detecting them early is important to the utility companies and power consumers.

The robot will also contain sensors to detect electromagnetic noise that could indicate problems, and it will check for faulty connections. It could also retrieve data from sensors in the field that is normally retrieved by ground or helicopter visits. In remote regions data collected will be relayed to the utility via satellite link. Images will be transmitted when the robot returns to locations with cell phone coverage.

According to EPRI representative Andrew Phillips, the savings should more than offset the expected price tag of under $500,000 for each robot.

The first prototype of the robot will be tested later this month, and commercial field testing is expected to start in 2014 along the 440 km Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline in Ohio. Similar robotic power line inspectors are also being developed by Canada’s Hydro-Québec Research Institute and the Kansai Electric Power Co. in Japan.

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More information: EPRI Journal - Spring 2010 (pdf)

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User comments : 6

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5 / 5 (1) Jun 10, 2010
Good idea...BUT if the robot travels around cable pylons on retrofitted cables expressly for that purpose he'll be missing the one spot where 99% of all problems with cables occur: at the point where they are attached to the pylons.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 10, 2010
Railroads already use systems like this and it's been found that there is no substitute for human judgement and perception. You'll still have people doing inspections, so any problems the robot isn't good at finding can still be found the old fashioned way.

The biggest problems with systems like this is that they tend to wear out too fast. The upkeep of the robots themselves is always hard to justify. When one of these thigs gets stuck in some remote area you'll have to send people to retrieve it and find a way to get a 143 lb robot down from the line without getting zapped.
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 10, 2010
The real savings, of course come from the long stretches of cable that don't have any problems. Having a human do those would be a waste, and boring.

Even if the robot is satisfied with only listing the places with anything dubious, humans could then just go trough them, with their judgement, experience and skills.

But I'm wondering about the price tag. I can't possibly imagine the price being more than $50k a piece. And even that is stretching it. The only way they could cost half a million a piece is if a lavish cost of development is spread between fewer than half a dozen such units. But even then, somebody is getting awful rich awful quick.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 10, 2010
Look we got lots of unemployment why not train some of these people who are unemployed to do this? It can't be that expensive?
not rated yet Jun 10, 2010
expected price tag of under $500,000 for each

Free toys for rural folks with shotguns.

In rural areas where road signs are fare game, these high-wire clay pigeons would be target-practice magnets.

Doubt the sensors could triangulate the buck shot that knocked them off their perch, causing more damage to the wires than before.

Perhaps less costly & more efficient is tasking a Government surveillance satellite, fees refunded to taxpayers, for visual clearances between conductors, trees and other objects.
3 / 5 (2) Jun 10, 2010

Actually, I've done tax returns for these jobs before, and it IS that expensive. This is one of the highest paying jobs in the WORLD at around $90,000 to $110,000 per year, DOE and overtime...and not counting benefits.

You have to figure hazard pay and probably an extra-high insurance price for worker compensation, which last I checked was 13% even for "safe" employment, so for stuff like this there's no telling what it costs the employer.

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