Robotic crawler performs check-up of power lines

An autonomous robot has been developed to reduce the cost of power line maintenance

U.S. researchers have developed an autonomous robotic crawler that scans power lines for weak points in an electrical grid. By monitoring and precisely locating problematic sections of cable, the robot is expected to improve the efficiency and reduce the costs involved in power line maintenance.

The maintenance of power lines has traditionally been an expensive process based on estimates. With no means of accurately measuring the wear of cables, power companies tend to either discard entire lengths of cable after a predetermined amount of time, or allow the cable to age until they fail.

"Removing an entire length of cable can be very expensive and costly, so removing an entire length of fully functioning cable after a set time period can be unnecessary," said Luke Kearney, undergraduate researcher and project coordinator at the University of Washington (UW). "[On the other hand,] allowing the cable to fail can cause widespread blackouts and can also be very expensive for the power companies to deal with."

UW's robot scans cables for internal damage by using sensors to track heat dissipation, partial electrical discharge, and any filaments of water that could have seeped into the insulation. Engineers can monitor the robot via wireless connection and watch the robot's surroundings through a front-mounted video camera.

Besides autonomously locating damaged sections of cable, the robot can also scan cable in areas which may be dangerous or difficult for humans to access. "In future years, it is our hope that the robot can be used in nuclear power plants to gather data in areas that may be dangerous to people," Kearney said.

The robot has only recently undergone its first field test at Lockheed Martin's Michoud NASA Assembly Facility in New Orleans, U.S., returning with the surprising finding that conditions in New Orleans are still unsafe even now, more than a year after the disastrous Hurricane Katrina struck.

Future prototypes can be designed to fit different cable configurations, including those used outside of the U.S., Kearney said.

More information is available from the project's Web site.

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