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A drone … “eternal” flight

Engineers at the University of Southern Denmark have developed a unique technology that enables a drone to fly practically forever without ever returning to the ground.

Docking and sensing mechanism

Thanks to its docking mechanism, sensors and artificial intelligence system, the drone can recognize a power line every time it needs to recharge its batteries, access high-voltage cables, stick out from below and absorb electricity like a kind of airplane.

Electric “vampire”.

“Drones can essentially live in a network and operate completely autonomously for long periods of time without the need for human interaction,” the development team explained via email.

In 2017, Imad Obaid, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU), was researching drone applications when the idea of ​​using power lines to charge drones arose. He found it an interesting field to explore electrical wires using it.

Airplanes to inspect power lines

Obaid noted that the current inspection process, which relies on helicopters and ground crews, is expensive and ineffective, according to drone developers. Therefore; The researcher envisioned this type of drone as a natural alternative to costly maintenance efforts.

There’s just one problem: the battery life of drones is very short – 40 minutes at most, while most industrial models drop to 30 minutes of runtime.

Obaid’s plan requires a human crew to stay close to the drone. This defeats the purpose of using these small, independent machines. Therefore; To achieve full autonomy, drones must be easily charged without human intervention. It turns out that the obvious answer was right in front of Obaid: power lines.

“Genius” design

Ensuring that an unmanned aircraft can safely detect, capture and absorb electricity from a power line can be a difficult design problem.

The first issue the researchers addressed was how to connect the drones to the power grid. “By default, drones don’t want to come into contact (physically) with anything other than the air during flight and the ground during landing… So; “When we tested some initial maneuvers to connect the drone to its power line, it sometimes behaved in unexpected ways.”

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During the tests, a skilled safety pilot stood next to the drone so he could control it; Any mistake can lead to serious damage and even a forest fire if the drone flies over the forest.

After several tests, the scientists programmed the drone to approach the power line from below; This reduces the risk of collision. From there, they had to figure out how to safely secure the drone to a power line.

Grab the handles

The researchers outfitted the drone with handholds, which are essentially an insulated clip that holds a power cord without powering the drone. The holding mechanism does not require the motors to be powered. The drone’s software activates an electromagnetic mechanism that recognizes when the handle is in place and sticks together; This leads to a secure connection to the computer.

This engineless design is key; Because designers don’t want to add extra weight or additional points of failure to the system.

When the drone’s batteries are full, the circuit cuts off power, the magnet stops working, and the handle opens to let the drone fly again.

Strong challenges

The final design challenge was how to charge the power line without turning the drone into a fireball of metal and plastic. Drones cannot climb power lines and steal power from them.

Typical transmission lines carry power anywhere from 1,000 volts to 800,000 volts. Consumer electronics, including drones, require special inverters to convert electricity to a voltage their batteries can handle (about 9 volts).

Carrying a transformer is not an option; High voltage transformers weigh hundreds of tons. Instead, the researchers decided to use inductive coupling. All high voltage power lines leak energy in the form of a magnetic field around the cable.

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The research team explains: “Charging is done in an inductive manner and therefore only depends on the current of the current, not the voltage. This creates a current in the drone’s power bank, a metal coil that acts like your phone’s wireless charger. The current is then used to charge the drone’s battery. Depending on the cable voltage, the 9.4-pound drone should spend anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours on the power line.

Tests and tests

Finally, after seven years of development, the drone is operational. The researchers achieved everything and succeeded. When the drone detects that its 7,000 mAh battery is nearing its lowest level, it switches to “search and capture” mode. The camera activates, detects a nearby power line, maneuvers under the cable and slowly moves up. The cable guide is engaged and begins to move to contact. When attached to the guide cable, the open handle points the drone upwards to properly connect to the power line cable.

As it goes up, the handle closes on both sides of the cover over the high tension cable. After connecting to the electrical connection, the magnetic control circuit is activated to securely close the clamp. At this point our “electric vampire” begins to absorb energy using the inductive charger he invented.

The team conducted tests of the system at HCA Airport in Denmark, which proved the system to be functional and effective. The drone performed five recharging sessions without any human intervention; This allowed two hours of uninterrupted flying, a huge leap from the usual 30-minute duration.

In theory, the drone can fly indefinitely. The next step, according to the engineering team, is to improve the system and its durability to test it in adverse weather conditions.

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“The system will be difficult to weather and withstand very high voltages,” the team says. For a drone network to truly work, it needs to be very rugged and reliable; Because it does not pose a threat to public safety. Necessary measures should also be taken to avoid interference and smuggling.

Aviation security

The researchers explained that the next steps will involve a lot of engineering work and testing to verify the functionality and safety of the system. Other issues, such as who will pay for the energy absorbed from the lines, must be resolved before we see the big opportunity vampire planes taking to the skies.

The researchers believe that utility companies will eventually use this type of drone to reduce the huge cost of monitoring and maintaining power lines.

Although the drone will be a research and commercial project, it is not difficult to see how the average drone enthusiast or any industry in the future could equip their drones.

“There are about 25 million miles of power lines around the world, enough to circle the Earth 1,000 times, and most of them are on alternating current,” the team says. Any type of drone can use all of these lines to recharge; It provides all kinds of 24/7 networks that will change the way entire industries monitor, organize and optimize their operations. This means saving money and saving lives in many cases, such as emergency procedures. As the inventors say, the potential applications and benefits from this technology are “as vast as the global electrical network.”

* “Fast Company” Magazine – “Tribune Media” Services

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