Sensor system helps drones avoid power lines

Autonomous drones will be able to detect and avoid energised power lines following the development of a novel sensor at the US Army Research Laboratory.

power lines
Manifold Robotics develops a power line safe drone platform-based technology licensed from CCDC Army Research Laboratory (Image: Manifold Robotics)

Researcher David Hull developed the approach using a configuration of field and 3D sensors, in conjunction with low-power processing methods.

“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,” Hull said in a statement.

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Existing wire-detection and wire-avoidance technologies that use radar and/or optical sensors have had commercial success, but they are expensive, bulky, and power-intensive with technical limitations. The detection algorithm developed at ARL is expected to result in size, weight, power and cost reduction.

By combining both sensing modalities in one sensor, US Army researchers estimated the direction of power flow, which traditional sensors cannot do, Hull said.

“This technology has significant dual-use potential and is expected to offer the military a better means for ground and air-based vehicles to avoid electric power lines when moving,” he said. “It is also useful for mapping out power grids or locating damaged wires, after a hurricane, or as part of a nation-building effort. The same technology is beneficial to power companies that require routine and emergency inspect of many miles of power lines to detect tree encroachment, excessive sag and other issues.”

The lab recently announced a patent license agreement with Manifold Robotics, a start-up company based in New York, who will produce the new technology for drone-based commercial applications.

Engineers and drone experts at Manifold Robotics said they intend to create a drone-based system that will detect power lines at a distance and determine their precise location to enable safe navigation. They said this will overcome the factors that limit the efficacy of drones in the vicinity of power lines and unleash their full potential for autonomous power line inspection as well as other Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations.

“With the rapid proliferation of drones for autonomous applications, we imagine that freight delivery companies may also be able to leverage our technology and transform power line rights-of-way into superhighways for drone freight deliveries,” said Jeff Laut, CEO of  Manifold Robotics.