A new robot developed by mechanical engineers promises to make the cleaning and maintenance of power lines far easier via an innovative form of automated locomotion.

The automated device, dubbed the SkySweeper by its inventors at the University of California, San Diego, operates by scampering independently along power lines to search for damage and other malfunctions which require repair.

The SkySweeper consists of a V-shaped mechanism which clings to power lines using a pair of clamps. It propels itself back and forth via an ingenious form of automated brachiation, similar to that used by arboreal monkeys to swing between the branches of trees.

A motorized "elbow" at the crook of the V drives the SkySweeper's "limbs" back and forth, and the clamps open and close when required in order to abet the robot's gradual brachiation along the length of a power line.

Chief designer Nick Morozovsky, a graduate student at the Coordinated Robotics Lab headed by mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Tom Bewley, is currently working on ways to improve the brachiating motion of the robot by strengthening the clamps so they are capable of swinging past cable support points completely.

Other possibilities for the device's development include equipping the SkySweeper with induction coils which are capable of deriving energy from the power line itself. This would enable the robot to operate independently for weeks or even months at a time.

The low cost of the SkySweeper is one of its chief advantages. It is made from commonplace electronic components which are available in retail stores, as well as plastic parts which can be manufactured using a cheap 3D printer. This is especially beneficial given the high cost of robots currently used for the inspection of power lines and the few other inspection options that utilities have at their disposal.

"Current line inspection robots are large, complex and expensive," says Morozovsky. "Utility companies may also use manned or unmanned helicopters equipped with infrared imagining to inspect lines...this [solution] is much simpler."