A power line inspection drone designed by local robotics engineers could be the answer to Eskom’s power cut woes, and has already piqued the interest of overseas governments.
Durban engineers Trevor Lorimer and Timothy Rowell built the first prototype as part of a master’s degree project to develop the power line robot, which is almost ready to be produced for industrial use.
The duo worked with Eskom and the Technology Innovation Agency, which has been assisting with development of the drone.
The drone is hoisted up a pylon by crane, after which a linesman attaches it to a power line. The drone acts as a vehicle to transport inspection cameras and other sensors, rolling along the power line and able to climb past towers.
It can also provide remarkable inspection detail of the line and support structures.
“Eskom handles many faults on their power lines every year,” Lorimer said. “These faults can lead to power dips that affect industry and residential customers.
The power utility currently inspects its lines by helicopter or foot patrol — expensive and sometimes hazardous methods, Lorimer explained.
“In the longer term, robots will be able to remain on the line indefinitely, providing data on a more regular basis compared to current methods,” Lorimer said.
He added that for these reasons, this technology is expected to result in earlier detection of damage and therefore a reduction in faults that trip the line.
“This is a disruptive innovation, and other teams from around the world have been working on such inspection vehicles,” Lorimer said.
“There are significant differences between our design and others, however, that will provide an edge over others.”
The UK and New Zealand governments have already shown deep interest in the project.
“I’m heading to the US in November to speak with utilities in California, too — they have about the same amount of power lines in that state as there are in the whole of South Africa,” he added.
The team will carry out the final testing phase of the drone over the next six months.