This 3D printed robot can scoot along power lines to inspect them

Power lines wear out. To figure out when that happens, utility companies must use equipment like infrared cameras, helicopters and robots.

A new robot out of the University of California-San Diego is meant to make the whole process simpler and cheaper. Robots are generally deployed to scoot along power lines when they cross dangerous stretches of ground or are located high in the air — times when it would be especially treacherous for a human to inspect the lines. Robots can also be used to keep an eye on equipment like bridge cables.

UC-San Diego’s SkySweeper is smaller, lighter and expected to cost less than $1,000. Made of brightly colored, mostly 3D printed plastic parts, the robot is made of two legs that come together to form a V. The legs squeeze together and then extend, moving the bot forward like an inch worm.

“Current line inspection robots are large, complex, and expensive. Utility companies may also use manned or unmanned helicopters equipped with infrared imaging to inspect lines,” SkySweeper designer and UC-San Diego mechanical engineering graduate student Nick Morozovsky said in a release. “This is much simpler.”

When SkySweeper encounters the end of a line at a pole, it will eventually be able to unlatch each leg and swing them over to grab on to another line. But first, Morozovsky needs to strengthen its leg clamps. He may also add the ability for the robot to harvest energy directly from a power line, meaning it could operate autonomously for weeks or months at a time.

As of today, SkySweeper is competing in the Road to Maker Faire Challenge, which will award one creator $2,500 to take their project to the New York World Maker Faire in September. Morozovsky will also introduce the robot and an associated paper at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Tokyo in November.