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Wire-crawling robots could inspect power lines

Bots developed at the Electric Power Research Institute will crawl along power lines to check for defects. But they look a little too much like UFOs.

Electric Power Research Institute

Robots that look like 1950s UFOs could start shimmying along thousands of miles of power lines in North America in the next few years. The high-wire acrobats would check for cable defects and problems like overgrown trees, eliminating the need for some human inspection, according to researchers at the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute.

The prototype cable crawler is designed to be 140 pounds and 6 feet long, and moves on rollers at an average speed of about 3 mph. It will be able to navigate around pylons by using special cables.

The crawler will be covered by solar panels, but these will be a backup power system. It will be mainly powered by electricity flowing in the wire it hugs, the shield wire, which protects power lines from lightning.

It will be equipped with high-def cameras and sensors to find overgrown trees and compare previous images of a power line with its present state; overgrowth is a major cause of blackouts. The crawler will also check for overheating and anomalous cable noise, and relay data to utilities via satellite and cell-phone signals.

The robot is expected to cover about 160 miles of cable per year, and cost utilities less than $500,000, cheaper than the equivalent work being performed by inspection crews in helicopters.

Initial testing is set for later this month, with full-fledged trials in 2014 along the 275-mile Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline.

I think the crawler is a great example of practical inspection robots, but it may freak some people out, especially if deployed near Area 51.

(Via Technology Review)