Power Line Inspection Robot Runner-up in Newton Fund CompetitionGeneral

The Power Line Inspection robot developed by engineers in UKZN’s Discipline of Electrical Engineering is a runner-up in the Newton Fund Video Competition thanks in part to a video created by one of the developers of the robot, Mr Trevor Lorimer.

Using footage gathered over four years, Lorimer created a video that showcases the robot’s development and design.

As runner-up, Lorimer will attend the Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences (CAETS) Engineering a Better World Conference in London to present the video.

The prize also provides marketing funding to publicise this innovation so Lorimer will use the trip to meet industry leaders in the United Kingdom who are interested in using the technology on their lines.

The robot was developed by the University in collaboration with Eskom, with Lorimer and Mr Timothy Rowell completing masters research on the project. Lorimer is now spearheading the third prototype robot.

Professor Ed Boje, now at the University of Cape Town, has managed the project since inception. Since Boje’s departure from UKZN, Dr Andrew Swanson has performed a direct role in managing the project, with Boje contributing expertise.

The project received seed funding from the Technology Innovation Agency through UKZN InQubate, the University’s Technology Transfer Office which manages the project’s intellectual property (co-owned by the University and Eskom). Inventors are entitled to benefit-sharing from the profits of successful commercialisation of the technology.

The power line inspection robot in action.

The team hopes to begin the final phase of primary development by testing the third generation prototype, preceding the start of limited commercial inspections targeted at niche applications where other methods are too expensive or dangerous to be conducted regularly.

‘If you distil the problem of power line maintenance, the value here is in the inspection data itself, and the challenge is to deliver this data to the inspector efficiently,’ explained Lorimer. ‘Instead of transporting tons of equipment across thousands of kilometres, we’ll send out robotic vehicles to transport the cameras.’

The robot performs detailed power line inspections at reduced costs to contribute to properly informed maintenance decisions, in order to ensure the quality of electrical supply. Inspections, important for statutory compliance and asset maintenance, are currently limited to foot and aerial patrols.

The lightweight robot is a platform, controlled from a ground station, to transport inspection sensors, and will comprise instrumentation from a multi-spectral camera to acoustic sensors to resistance and temperature measures. The device uses smaller line crews and could be instrumental in inspecting lines in numerous countries.

Lorimer hopes that the video will generate more publicity for innovations in Engineering at UKZN, and also gather more support for entrepreneurial activities, especially at the University.

Lorimer envisions the development of technology allowing the device to be recharged by the power lines themselves, using machine vision to detect hardware so the robot can self-navigate, and connect to high-speed networks to allow inspectors to access inspection data from an office base.

* Lorimer was recently a guest on Kaya FM Bizz, where he spoke to Thuli Magubane about the technology.

Christine Cuénod