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Low-cost SkySweeper inspection robot scoots along power lines

This partially 3D-printed prototype can be produced for less than $1,000, much less than commercial utility line robots.

The SkySweeper can do a back flip to avoid obstacles on a cable. U.C. San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

You only need to experience another blackout for a reminder of the importance of power grid maintenance. Robots that crawl along and inspect power lines could save utilities a bundle in preventive checks.

We've seen a few designs for machines that can take on this dangerous and tricky job, such as Hydro-Quebec's LineScout, but they can still cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Engineers at the University of California at San Diego have developed a cheap and fast wire-crawling inspection robot called the SkySweeper. Made of off-the-shelf electronics and 3D-printed parts , the basic bot can be produced for less than $1,000.

The V-shaped bot hangs from a wire and works around a spring-elastic elbow joint. It moves along like an upside-down inchworm as its cable-hugging clamps open and close.

It's a basic prototype with a lithium-polymer battery and an Arduino controller, yet it can be augmented with cameras for inspection or induction coils to grab power from the line. That could let it stay aloft on the grid for months at a time.

If it faces a support bracket or other obstacle along the cable, SkySweeper can do a back flip to get past it.

"Current line inspection robots are large, complex, and expensive," Nick Morozovsky, a UCSD mechanical engineering grad student who designed the robot, said in a release.

"Utility companies may also use manned or unmanned helicopters equipped with infrared imaging to inspect lines. This is much simpler."

Morozovsky will present the robot at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2013) in November in Tokyo, and also has it as an entry in the Road to Maker Faire Challenge.

SkySweeper moves along at an impressive clip. Check it out in the video below.