While autonomous drones are now pretty good at avoiding large obstacles, thin suspended power lines can still pose a challenge. A new onboard sensing system, however, could change that.
Currently, drones use radar and/or optical sensors to detect power lines. Not only are these technologies sometimes unreliable, but the sensors themselves tend to be large, expensive and energy-hungry.
Seeking an alternative, engineers with the US Army Research Laboratory have developed a sensor/software package that instead detects the electric and magnetic fields emitted by power lines. Not only is the system said to be highly accurate at determining the exact location of those lines – at a distance – but it should ultimately be much smaller, lighter and cheaper than traditionally used sensors, plus it consumes considerably less power.
Additionally, the setup is able to determine the direction in which power is flowing through the lines. This means that it could also be used for the aerial mapping of power grids, and for locating faults such as damaged wires, tree encroachment, or line sagging.
“Power lines are small and difficult to see with radar or optical sensors, but they generate large fields that can be easily detected with low-power, low-cost, passive electric- and magnetic-field sensors,” says David Hull, who created the system.
The technology has been licensed to New York-based startup Manifold Robotics, which will be developing it commercially.
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