If you look up at a power line in a few years and see something skittering along the wires, it (hopefully) won't be a mutant crab monster, but a powerline inspection robot costing less than US$1,000. A prototype of such a robot, called SkySweeper, was presented this month at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Jacobs School of Engineering's Research Expo. The robot was built with off-the-shelf electronics and plastic parts printed on an inexpensive 3D printer.
Inspecting power and other utility lines is a long, arduous and often dangerous task. Sending a worker out to work on high-tension cables, for example, means either shutting off the power or employing a complex ballet of helicopters, protective clothing and elaborate static charge equalizing maneuvers. There are robots that can carry out wire inspections, but they have distinct disadvantages.
“Current line inspection robots are large, complex, and expensive. Utility companies may also use manned or unmanned helicopters equipped with infrared imaging to inspect lines,” said Nick Morozovsky, a graduate student in mechanical engineering. “This is much simpler.”
SkySweeper was designed by Morozovsky at UCSD's Coordinated Robotics Lab working under mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Tom Bewley. Looking a bit like a cable car for squirrels, the current design is V-shaped and uses a motor-driven “elbow” in the middle. This elbow pivots the arms that have clamps at their ends that alternately grasp and release the cables to inch the robot along.
Morozovsky is working on increasing the strength of the clamps to allow the robot to swing end over end so that it could swing past the cable support points.
While the elbow motor is currently powered by an off the shelf battery, Morozovsky says it would be possible to equip the robot with induction coils so that it could be powered indefinitely by the power line itself.
The video below shows SkySweeper in action.